IOWA CITY — James Vandenberg insists it’s no big deal.
“If we go 11-1 and I don’t have a touchdown pass this season, no one will care, myself included,” Vandenberg said.
That’s a trade-off Iowa’s senior quarterback could live with, but after throwing 25 touchdown passes a year ago, Vandenberg was hoping to find the end zone even more frequently this season.
“Right now, I’m on pace for zero,” Vandenberg said, flashing a smile.
That’s right. Through three games, he’s pitching a shutout.
The Hawkeyes are one of four teams among the 120 in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have not thrown a touchdown pass yet this season, joining Connecticut, Air Force and Army.
“It’s going to happen, hopefully sooner rather than later,” receiver Keenan Davis said. “We’ve been close a couple of times, but we need to start putting six on the board when we get the chance.”
Davis believes the Iowa offense took strides in that direction in last weekend’s victory over Northern Iowa, when Vandenberg completed 18 of 28 passes for 228 yards.
The ability to establish the run early — Iowa gained 60 of its 201 rushing yards against the Panthers in the first quarter — opened some avenues for the Hawkeyes passing attack to enjoy its best game of the young season.
“When you can force an opponent to put eight in the box, that creates a lot more 1-on-1 opportunities for the receivers and creates more chances for big plays,” Vandenberg said. “They find themselves with more of a cushion. It all started with the run and the holes the guys up front created.”
Iowa had four plays of 20 yards or more against UNI, equaling the total number the Hawkeyes managed in the first two games of the season.
Two of those gains came in the passing game, where coach Kirk Ferentz saw the type of effort he believes his team can build on as it works toward Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against Central Michigan.
“It was good to see Kevonte (Martin-Manley) get involved, and Keenan had two really nice third-down catches,” Ferentz said. “Those things were good to see.”
Martin-Manley covered a career-high 101 yards with his five catches, a reception total Davis matched.
“We did our job last week. We caught the ball,” Davis said. “It wasn’t anything special, just what we are supposed to do and that’s the way it should work. We came back after the drops we had against Iowa State and played the way we are capable of playing.”
The Hawkeyes continue to look for someone to emerge as a third option among receivers, a role where Don Shumpert and Jordan Cotton have both had their moments.
“We do have a help-wanted sign up, no doubt about that,” Ferentz said. “That group overall has practiced a lot better since the start of August, and the hope is that it will show up. Moving forward, it has to or we’re in trouble. Somebody’s got to make plays.”
Iowa isn’t lacking opportunities.
The Hawkeyes have run an average of 74.3 offensive plays in their first three games under new offensive coordinator Greg Davis. A year ago, Iowa averaged 53 snaps per game.
“It doesn’t seem like that much of a difference, but I think that means we are getting used to that tempo,” Vandenberg said. “We’re getting enough chances. Now, it’s up to us to do something with them.”