Leistikow: What will Iowa football receiver Matt VandeBerg do in his Cy-Hawk encore?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Matt VandeBerg has a knack for sneaking up on people.

For all the love that Iowa State’s tall, talented wide receivers are (justifiably) getting this week, VandeBerg has become a forgotten man in the conversation leading up to Saturday’s 11 a.m. Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Series football showdown in Ames.

He shouldn’t be.

The Hawkeye senior with 108 career catches has made it a rite of fall to burn the Cyclones.

The once-spindly VandeBerg (now 6-foot-1, 195 pounds) has two career 100-yard games at Iowa. Both have come against Iowa State.

Iowa’s Matt VandeBerg (89) points down field after a long reception in front of Iowa State’s Darian Cotton during the Hawkeyes' 31-17 win in Ames in 2015.

In 2015, he sneaked into Iowa State’s secondary for a career-high nine catches — five of them becoming third-down conversions — for 114 crucial yards. The most memorable, a 48-yard connection from C.J. Beathard on third-and-21 in the fourth quarter, swung the momentum in an eventual 31-17 Iowa win.

“I didn’t run that route correctly earlier in the game,” VandeBerg recalled. “We talked it over, and I was able to run the correct route, and C.J. put it right on the money.”

It was a heady play earlier in that game that came to Kirk Ferentz’s mind this week.

“First play I thought about when you mentioned his name,” the Hawkeye head coach said, “was him following a fumble.”

Teammate Henry Krieger Coble fumbled on his way to the end zone, but VandeBerg was trailing close behind, scooped the loose ball and leapt in one motion, over the goal line. Touchdown Iowa.

The Hawkeye win became a catapult toward a 12-0 regular season.

Then in 2016, VandeBerg outdid himself. The offensive star in a 42-3 Hawkeye rout of Iowa State had seven receptions, 129 yards, one highlight-reel touchdown grab — and one postgame proposal.

That, too, was a covert attack.

During the game, VandeBerg had the engagement ring tucked into his backpack. After accompanying his teammates to the Kinnick Stadium locker room, he re-emerged from the tunnel and ran to the Hawkeye sideline. He found his then-girlfriend in the first row, and went down on bended knee in what became a viral moment.

“Nobody really knew, except for myself and maybe two or three other teammates,” VandeBerg said. “So I kept it pretty much under wraps until it happened.

“She had no clue. That was the best part.”

A fellow lightly recruited Hawkeye senior respected and admired the bold move.

“Love it. Love it. It was great. It gives guys like me hope,” Akrum Wadley cracked this week. “He’s the guy, you know? VandeBerg, he’s a great leader. He’s a great person off the field. He’s the man.”

Matt and Laura VandeBerg are now husband and wife.

Back then, they certainly never envisioned another Cy-Hawk meeting would be in Matt’s future.

But …

Surprise! Here he is again.

Back for a fifth year after a medical-hardship waiver (from a season-ending broken foot he suffered two weeks after his on-field proposal), VandeBerg last week against Wyoming played a real football game for the first time in more than 11 months.

The first time he touched the ball, he returned a punt 23 yards.

He also shook off some rust with two receptions for 19 yards.

“It felt good to get hit. It kind of reminds you you’re playing football,” VandeBerg said, smiling. “That’s a feeling I’ve been missing for a year.”

While VandeBerg plays, his wife is a gameday host for the university’s digital platforms — her interviews shown to 70,000 fans on the Kinnick scoreboard.

A fellow reporter joking with VandeBerg this week that the couple is “Mr. and Mrs. Iowa.”

“I think that’s a stretch,” the player grinned.

This Saturday, though, Hawkeye fans would love for him to be "Mr. Iowa" and re-enact his 2015 and 2016 performances. VandeBerg’s wife won’t be on the sidelines for this one. It’s enemy territory, where a slew of first-time Hawkeye starters will be making their maiden voyage into Jack Trice Stadium.

Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and his wife, Laura, were engaged after last year's Cy-Hawk matchup at Kinnick Stadium.

But the younger Hawkeyes can lean on a veteran who has pointed the way before in Ames.

One of the lasting visuals out of that 2015 Cy-Hawk showdown was VandeBerg emerging from a third-down catch with the football in one hand, him motioning for a first down with the other.

“I don’t know if you need to overcome (road hostility),” VandeBerg said, “as much as feed off of it. It’s exciting when the crowds are into it, and whatnot. It kind of gives you a little juice, too.”

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, making his first career road start, would be wise to look toward No. 89 in white this week.

VandeBerg's gotten the best of the Cyclones before.

Don’t be surprised if he sneakily does it again.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.