Memories of 2011 comeback vs. Pitt mostly sweet, a little bitter
People still talk about "The Comeback."
It's likely to come up whenever James Vandenberg introduces himself and the stranger starts connecting the dots leading back to Sept. 17, 2011.
Of course, anyone who's met Vandenberg knows he'll downplay his role in Iowa's improbable 31-27 football victory over Pittsburgh.
"I think probably more than anything, it signifies a lot of how we were coached," said Vandenberg, a former Hawkeye quarterback now working as a district sales manager for Beck's Hybrids in Atlanta, Ind. "And what coach (Kirk) Ferentz instilled in us.
"To be able to rally with 110 guys and make that happen certainly was a special memory."
It was an intoxicating adrenaline rush for anyone who bleeds black and gold.
By erasing a 21-point deficit in the final 17 minutes, Vandenberg helped Iowa temporarily transform its offensive identity.
When the Hawkeyes visit Pittsburgh this Saturday for an 11 a.m. game on ESPNU, they'll try to recapture that spirit.
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It's easy to forget how bleak things appeared at Kinnick Stadium.
Not only did Iowa trail 24-3 with 3:11 left in the third quarter, just one of its first 10 drives netted more than 28 yards.
Vandenberg was completing half of his passes (14-of-28) for a total of 182 yards.
So Ken O'Keefe, the Hawkeyes' offensive coordinator from 1999-2011, decided to air things out.
"We kind of made the decision it was going to be no-huddle from then on," Vandenberg recalled. "The no-huddle, two-minute offense is something you work on every week. We were all really comfortable with that."
It took just 1:55 for Iowa to march 60 yards and score its first touchdown (a 1-yard run by Vandenberg).
After Pittsburgh kicked a field goal, the Hawkeyes went 73 yards in 2:14 (ending with a 14-yard pass from Vandenberg to Keenan Davis), trimming the Panthers' margin to 27-17 with less than 10 minutes remaining.
"We'd score a touchdown and come back to the sideline talking about what we saw and what went well, what we wanted to hit the next drive," Vandenberg said. "We just hoped the defense would get a quick stop, and they certainly did their job that whole fourth quarter."
And then, Vandenberg and O'Keefe spotted a mismatch.
Kevonte Martin-Manley, a freshman receiver, was drawing single coverage.
"It was kind of a funky-looking (defense)," Vandenberg said. "The safety was having to honor our tight end, and so it put Kevonte one-on-one with their linebacker, going down the seam."
Vandenberg found Martin-Manley for a 25-yard touchdown, bringing Iowa within 27-24, with 6:19 left.
On the Hawkeyes' next possession, Pittsburgh switched linebackers but employed the same alignment.
Vandenberg, who completed 17 of his last 20 passes for 217 yards, threw to Martin-Manley for a 22-yard touchdown with 2:51 remaining.
Suddenly, Iowa was ahead.
"It was a great throw by James," said Martin-Manley, now a Hawkeye senior. "He put it over the top of the linebacker. I jumped up. My only mindset was, 'Just catch it.' ''
Defensive back Micah Hyde clinched the win when he intercepted Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri's pass at midfield.
Those who stayed throughout, from a sellout crowd of 70,585, erupted. Vandenberg and O'Keefe shared a private celebration.
"Nobody worked harder than coach O'Keefe. I mean nobody," Vandenberg said. "I remember we were just smiling in the locker room, neither of us believing what happened."
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A photo mural of Martin-Manley's winning catch decorates a wall in the room where Hawkeye players conduct postgame interviews.
"It's sweet," Martin-Manley said this week. "It's really humbling. It's a testament to a lot of hard work and our sacrifice."
In some ways, Iowa also experienced a bitter aftertaste.
O'Keefe is now a wide receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins. His replacement, Greg Davis, continues to deal with doubters.
Jake Rudock, the current quarterback, is a target of second-guessers who say he's too cautious. They want him to take more chances.
And why not? It all seemed so simple, for a few fleeting moments, three years ago.
"I understand how that goes. A lot of outside voices," Vandenberg said. "It's hard to ever understand it from the outside, from our fans' perspective. But I have full faith in Jake. He's a great kid and a great talent.
"Between him and coach Davis and coach Ferentz, I don't think any of us have anything to worry about."