Matt VandeBerg’s transformation into a true No. 1 wideout
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The pass was where Matt VandeBerg wanted it. It hit his hands. It then hit the ground.
In a game where he put on a show, going off for 129 receiving yards in a 42-3 win over Iowa State on Saturday, VandeBerg kept going back over his one drop.
Really, nothing sums up VandeBerg better than that.
He’s a perfectionist and his desire to get every little detail right is why he’s becoming one of the rarest sights at Kinnick Stadium — a legitimate No. 1 playmaking wide receiver.
“I think if you want to be good at anything you got to expect the best,” VandeBerg said.
He certainly was on Saturday. He caught seven passes, including a 12-yard touchdown. He gained 25 yards on a reverse. Iowa State couldn’t stop him. Yet, he felt the need to apologize for the one thing he didn’t do he during a 39-point victory.
“He beats himself up over drops like that,” quarterback C.J. Beathard said, “but he made enough plays in the game for that to be OK there.”
All he’s done this season is make plays. He’s caught 11 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns in two games.
Iowa has topped 40 points in both of its wins. The passing game is routinely coming up with big plays. Beathard is a big reason why, but so is Vandeberg. He’s the kind of playmaker the ground-and-pound Hawkeyes don’t typically line up outside.
Last year, VandeBerg became just the third wide receiver in the last 10 years to top the 700-yard receiving mark. That’s not a high threshold.
The other two were Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. McNutt is the best Iowa receiver of the last decade. He was a thoroughbred, a strider, tall, capable of catching anything headed his way. Johnson-Koulianos built his reputation on making big plays.
But VandeBerg is more multi-dimensional than either. He’s wiry. He’s elusive. He has a little Miles Davis in him too. He’s great at improvising and doing whatever is necessary to get open.
And he’s probably the quickest of the three.
“He is faster than people think,” Beathard said. “I mean, he’s white, but he’s really fast. People think he’s not as fast.”
People don’t also think of him as a true standout receiver, but he plays like one. VandeBerg is as underrated as “The Americans.” His skill set and playmaking ability put him in the conversation of best wide outs in the Big Ten. It’s games like Saturday that will increase the chatter around him around the league.
Take his 12-yard touchdown reception. He headed to the corner of the end zone. Beathard floated a pass over an Iowa State defender — on an easy toss in its own right — but it’s what VandeBerg did next that made the play. It’s easier to solve an astrophysicists equation than grab the ball like VandeBerg did with a defender draped over him like a curtain.
“That is what he does,” Beathard said. “He makes big plays. He made a great catch.”
It wasn’t by accident. VandeBerg leaves nothing to chance, including that play. It’s a pass he worked on with Beathard in the summer.
It’s because of actions like that coach Kirk Ferentz calls him the leader of the wide receiver room.
“He feels a responsibility that way, and he’s doing a good job with the other guys too,” Ferentz said. “But first and foremost, you like to be able to count on a guy hitting the field and playing well. All of us coaches feel that way about Matt.”
Iowa can win games with its offensive line and rushing attack. The Hawkeyes have made bowls by just following that recipe. That’s nice, but VandeBerg adds a little spice to the offense. His playmaking ability in the passing game can turn a solid Subaru into a Mercedes-Benz.
It’s what he and Beathard do together that can put this offense over the top. A strong running game is one thing. A strong passing game, that can stand on its own, is something else. Combine it together and it can become one of the Big Ten’s best offenses.
VandeBerg could very well be Iowa’s first 1,000-yard receiver since McNutt in 2011, but before he’ll think about that he needed to find his girlfriend, Laura Bulanda, in the postgame celebration. He knew for a while she was the one. This was one of the few games his dad could attend. The moment was just too perfect.
So he asked her if she would marry him. She said yes.
“It was amazing,” VandeBerg said. “I don’t really have any words for it.”
There would be no apology here. The one thing he needed to go perfectly on Saturday did.