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Sluggish Iowa off to slow start

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP)

Iowa is fielding one of the youngest teams of coach Kirk Ferentz's 14-year tenure.

Youth is hardly the reason the Hawkeyes are off to such a dismal start. After escaping from Chicago with an 18-17 win over Northern Illinois in its opener, Iowa's issues came to light last weekend in a three-point loss to Iowa State.

The Hawkeyes (1-1) didn't record a sack or a touchdown, scoring six points despite forcing four turnovers. Though Iowa's improving defense held Iowa State scoreless after halftime, its offense couldn't take advantage.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes host Northern Iowa, which nearly knocked off another struggling Big Ten team, Wisconsin, on Sept. 1. The Panthers (1-1) appear to be one of the best teams in the Championship Subdivision, and Iowa knows it can't afford as many mistakes as it made against Iowa State and expect to win.

''I think it's just pretty much team execution right now, and we've done a lot of things in practice that are encouraging. I thought we had a good August and thought we were moving forward. I think in time that'll show up,'' Ferentz said.

Roughly half of the players listed as either starters or second-stringers for the Hawkeyes are underclassmen.

But Iowa can't place the blame for a shaky start on the kids.

Senior quarterback James Vandenberg was expected to be one of the best returning passers in the Big Ten this season. But through two games under new offensive coordinator Greg Davis, the player who threw 25 touchdown passes a year ago has none so far.

Iowa's offensive line kept Vandenberg clean last weekend after he was sacked six times against Northern Illinois. But Vandenberg was just 20 of 42 passing for 236 yards with two interceptions, including one with just over a minute left that let Iowa State seal the victory.

Vandenberg on Tuesday defended Davis, whose offense is last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency, scoring offense and total offense.

''It was the easiest transition I could have imagined, and I think we've picked up on it well. We just haven't been able to execute it as well as you need to,'' Vandenberg said.

Though Vandenberg completed less than half of his passes, it was hardly all his fault.

The Hawkeyes dropped a ton of passes, with main targets Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz - all upperclassmen - failing to corral at least one ball that hit them in the hands.

''We had a couple of key drops on Saturday that, had we made those catches, the game might have been a different outcome,'' said sophomore running back Damon Bullock, who muffed a screen pass that could have led to a big gain. ''We're going to focus on catching every ball, looking it in before we turn up field.''

Though Iowa's offense has been surprisingly bad, its defense has been surprisingly good.

Iowa adjusted well after letting the Cyclones scored a touchdown on their opening series, allowing just three points the rest of the way to a team that racked up 38 points in an opening-day win over Tulsa.

Iowa State gained 101 yards on the ground, but it took the Cyclones 41 carries to do it.

''I felt like we played better in the second half. We grew defensively,'' Ferentz said. ''We just had more confidence. We were more decisive in our play.''

But in an era when scoring seems easier than ever, the Hawkeyes have made it look extraordinarily difficult without departed star wide receiver Marvin McNutt and running back Marcus Coker. That means Vandenberg must improve.

''If I have to worry about him, I worry about him putting too much pressure on himself. It's easy to tell a guy `Hey, just play your position.' But that's easier said than done,'' Ferentz said. ''That's the way he's built. He's so respected because of that. He's extremely tough mentally and tough physically.''

Tagged: Iowa, Iowa State, James Vandenberg, Keenan Davis

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