Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg became just the second Iowa native to start a season-opener when he started against Tennessee Tech two weeks ago. The 6-3, 212-pound Vandenberg has completed 29-of-49 passes (59.2%) for 426 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
While it may look like Pitt has struggled in its first two games, Vandenberg disagrees. He compared Pitt's schemes to Ohio State a little—when asked to compare them to a similar Big Ten opponent. He added that there's a lot of different dimensions about the Pitt defense that make it a challenge from a quarterback's perspective.
"They're not similar to anyone we've seen so far; a little like Ohio State, but different," Vandenberg said. "We know they're putting in a new scheme, which makes preparing for them even more important.
"This is a BCS opponent we're playing. We know a good team is coming in. I think they have really good players; you can see that. There's a lot of talent on the field, a lot of guys that can run. It all makes it harder on the offense."
On paper, these teams to be polar opposites. Pitt is a -1 in turnover margin (per game), next-to-last in the Big East. Iowa is third in the Big Ten with a +1.5 margin per game. In addition to Vandenberg being more efficient, and the turnover margin, the Hawkeyes have one of the most efficient kickers in the Big Ten in Mike Meyer. He's perfect on both field goal and point-after attempts, averaging three field goals and a total of 12.5 points in these first two games.
Free safety Michael Hyde, Defensive MVP of last year's Insight Bowl, leads the Hawkeyes with two pass breakups. He's also one of six Hawkeye defenders in double-digits with 10 tackles on the season; meaning if he's in on a lot of tackles, he's preparing himself on how to tackle Pitt running back Ray Graham this week. It's clear that Graham has been labeled a top priority.
"I think (Graham) fits well in the Big Ten," Hyde said. "He's a hard-nose runner, he can break a lot of tackles. There's not a lot of running backs like him."
Hyde said from a quick look at Pitt's film, he's also impressed with a couple of the receivers.
"They have big receivers on the outside," Hyde added. "They have the small, slot-type receivers that do real well. (Tino Sunseri) does a good job of getting his receivers the ball. It's going to be a big challenge. We have to play them tough."
Cornerback Shaun Prater returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Tennessee Tech. He says while the focus is on Ray Graham, Mike Shanahan is also a guy who sticks out. While he'll probably have the assignment of defending Shanahan, he feels the offense all starts with Sunseri and Graham.
"It starts with the quarterback and running back that they have," Prater said. "They have really good receivers, especially number 87. He's a pretty big guy, a guy who can be a big-play threat. It's going to be a big challenge."
Prater drew the comparison of Pitt's offense to Michigan, a little. Though offensive assistants Calvin Magee and Tony Dews were on the Michigan staff last year, Prater says they have not focused on any old film of Michigan. Part of that is that the Iowa coaching staff knows there are some similarities with Michigan. However, there's different personnel and a few other coaches like Todd Dodge and Mike Norvell bringing in their own twists to the offense. This isn't an exact replica of Michigan's previous system.
"We haven't talked a lot about that, but most likely it's similar to Michigan," Prater said. "The only thing I can say is that they're comfortable with the ball in their hands. The quarterback is very comfortable with the ball in his hands. It is a little similar to Michigan and Iowa State."
On that note, it's evident that in addition to gearing up for Pitt, the 44-41 overtime loss to Iowa State is still on the minds of the Iowa players. Iowa is at a stage right now where they know they have two non-conference games left before they open the Big Ten season. They open at Penn State on October 8. In addition to that, they feel a big part of what they need to improve on is just getting that Iowa State loss out of their memory.
"We're coming off a loss last week," Vandenberg said. "We're looking forward to another quality opponent. We're looking forward to having Pitt come in. They're talented on both sides of the ball."
"We're just basically learning from the errors of our last game," Prater added. "We're thankful for the loss (to Iowa State)—not thankful we lost the game, but thankful for the loss because it's something to learn from. At the end of the season, we can look back and say, ‘It happened early in the season.' We can pinpoint back to that loss, and say, ‘This is what we have to fix,' and make sure it doesn't happen again."