Iowa's Vandenberg ready for major mental test

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Iowa wide receiver Trey Stross has no doubt that James Vandenberg will be mentally prepared for the biggest game of his life.

"He's in some of my classes," Stross said. "I can tell he's a smart kid."

Which classes?

"Sports psychology," Stross replied. "We compare grades and he kicks my butt."

Vandenberg's first career start for Iowa could serve as a case study in sports psychology as he leads the 10th-ranked Hawkeyes into Ohio Stadium to face No. 11 Ohio State on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Iowa will play its first full game without starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who sustained a right ankle injury in last Saturday's loss to Northwestern and underwent surgery earlier this week.

Though Stanzi had been the Big Ten's ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde player this season, his clutch play in the fourth quarter eclipsed many of his mistakes. His absence from the starting lineup has changed the complexion of Saturday's pseudo Big Ten championship game, as Iowa is currently listed as a 17-point underdog.

Not surprisingly, Vandenberg struggled last week as he saw his first meaningful action of the season following Stanzi's injury. His first career pass in Big Ten play got intercepted, and he finished the game 9-for-27 passing for 82 yards and no touchdowns.

With a full week to prepare as the starter, Vandenberg and his teammates expect better results Saturday.

"He's got a different mentality in game planning this week, knowing that he's going in as the starter," Stross said. "He hit the film room like a starter would. He's competing on and off the field right now, and that's what we need from our leader."

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Vandenberg certainly has the ability to succeed at the college level.

He was the Offensive Player of Year in Iowa as a high school quarterback. Stross gives Vandenberg a slight edge over Stanzi in arm strength, which could help in Iowa's bread-and-butter downfield passing attack.

The bigger challenges, as always, take place from the neck up, and Vandenberg must make quick and correct decisions against one of the nation's most dominating defenses.

"It's a great atmosphere. They're a great team," Vandenberg told reporters this week. "It's what you dream about growing up, being in a situation like this, and here it is."

Ohio State owns three shutouts this season and has caused problems for veteran quarterbacks like Penn State's Daryll Clark, Minnesota's Adam Weber and Illinois' Juice Williams. The Buckeyes rank second in the league behind Iowa in interceptions with 16 and bring consistent pressure with their front four.

"It might as well be an NFL defense we're playing," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "You couldn't ask for a tougher starting contest for [Vandenberg]. He'll get good support. He'll be prepared. I'm not going to measure him over the next 60 minutes of play. He'll continue to improve. He's a quality football player and he works hard and I have total confidence in him."

Stross doesn't think the game plan will change much with Vandenberg under center and expects the offense to still take its shots down the field.

Iowa has been known for its resiliency all year long, and if Vandenberg goes into The Shoe and beats the Buckeyes, he'll be the unlikeliest hero in a team full of them.

"It's going to be tough for anybody, much less a guy making his first career start," Iowa linebacker A.J. Edds said. "But if there's anybody that we want to have doing it as far as a backup, it'd be James."