Iowa needs to make quarterback Nate Stanley and passing game top priority

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Down by a touchdown with 80-plus yards to go and only a minute or two remaining, there’s nobody else Iowa players want at the helm than quarterback Nate Stanley.

Why? Because Stanley has done it before and they’re confident the sophomore will do it again.

“The Iowa State game, we were down and he kind of did take it over at times,” Iowa senior linebacker Ben Niemann said. “He threw five touchdown passes or something like that.”

“You saw him during Iowa State,” Iowa senior defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. “We all have confidence in him. We know he can do it. Just makes really smart decisions. For me, he’s very mature for where he’s at. I feel like he’s playing more like a fourth-year guy than a second-year guy.”

Yes, the Iowa State game. Stanley guided four Iowa touchdown drives of 89-plus yards, threw 5 touchdowns and no interceptions in a 44-41 win against the now-ranked Cyclones in Ames. Stanley completed 27 of 41 passes for 333 yards. He captured his teammates’ confidence with a late 7-play, 89-yard drive that led to the game-tying touchdown. He earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors afterward.

But since that game, Iowa’s offense has flirted with consistency only a few times. The running attack has stalled, and Iowa’s passing game has fluctuated between good and average. The Hawkeyes are 4-3 overall and have lost three of their four Big Ten games. They need a jolt of offense or this season is headed for an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The Hawkeyes want a balanced identity guided by its power running game. But with freshmen replacing injured seniors at both tackle positions, Iowa’s running attack is like a football version of a money pit. The Hawkeyes won’t get anything from it close to what they’ve put in it.

This isn’t a suggestion that Iowa should abandon the running game. Not at all. Running the ball is the healthiest way for Iowa to remain a competitive program in the future. But for the rest of this season, the Hawkeyes need to put the focus on the passing game. They have the right signal caller in Stanley to make it happen.

Iowa ranks 102nd nationally in run offense at 131.6 yards per game. It’s 103rd in total offense at 350.3 yards per game. The Hawkeyes average 3.54 yards per carry, 111th nationally and better than only five FBS programs.

Stanley averages 216 passing yards per game and completes 57.7 percent of his throws. His ratio of 16 touchdowns to 3 interceptions is astounding. As a sophomore in 2013, Jake Rudock threw for 18 touchdowns and 13 picks. In 2008, sophomore Ricky Stanzi passed for 14 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.

Perhaps the best comparison to this season is 2004 when injuries forced Iowa to its fifth-team running back. The Hawkeyes offense relied on sophomore quarterback Drew Tate, who passed for 2,786 yards, 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Tate led with his fire and persona as well as his execution. Stanley has the opposite personality, but it’s one that players respect equally.

“I think it starts just by the way [Stanley] carries himself,” Iowa junior defensive end Parker Hesse said. “He’s not a guy that really rides the wave. He’s not up or down no matter the situation. He’s just focused on the task at hand and that’s something that’s really easy to respect in a guy and put faith in someone like that.”

“He does all the little things right that a quarterback has to do,” Niemann said. “As a freshman when he first got here, he was under C.J. [Beathard] and I took notice in camp that he was doing little things like being in his playbook during our break or nap time. He takes the initiative to do the little things that it takes to be a good player.”

Character counts, especially among teammates who want young players to dedicate themselves to the team. That matters on Saturdays, but so does performance. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Stanley has an NFL build and arm. That impresses his teammates, too.

“I go against him every day,” said Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson, who leads the Big Ten with 13 passes defended. “I’ve been going against him pretty much since spring after C.J. left, and Nate took over the starting spot. I think he’s a great quarterback, has a great arm. He’s really smart.

“Facing the other quarterbacks, he has one of the strongest arms. I think he can get it there right out of the break, right on a tightrope. [Wyoming quarterback] Josh Allen had a good arm as well, but Stanley’s arm is really strong. If he can stand back there in the pocket, he can see over the line and he throws really well.”

“He’s got a rocket,” Bazata said.

Stanley’s offensive teammates share in the confidence. Center James Daniels said Stanley’s demeanor is “always positive and that’s what we need.” Running back Akrum Wadley was unequivocal in his praise for Stanley.

“We believe in Nate,” Wadley said. “He always keeps his composure. He’s a leader. He’s got a cannon.”

So how far can Stanley throw it?

“Probably two fields,” Wadley said, then started laughing. “I’m lying. He lets it rip. He’s going to be special, man. We don’t shy away from Stanley. We don’t get down on him or nothing.”

Prorated from his current numbers, Stanley would tie the school record with 27 touchdowns, toss 5 interceptions and pile up nearly 2,600 yards. Those are winning numbers. In order to win, Iowa needs more Stanley.

The Hawkeyes didn’t need that from Stanzi in 2008. They had running back Shonn Greene and a Blitzkrieg for an offensive line. They did need it from Rudock in 2013, but the short passing scheme hamstrung the quarterback’s effectiveness. Iowa got it from Tate in 2004, and that’s the last season it has won a Big Ten title.

“T he common [characteristics] I think about [in] guys that are good quarterbacks, typically, are how they handle adversity, how they handle bad plays?” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “To end up on the starting field, you have to be pretty good in terms of skills. But how are you going to handle the tough situations? Every quarterback goes through them, every player goes through them. But quarterbacks, just a more visible world they live in, and everybody’s got an opinion about quarterbacks.

“But to me, that’s been [Stanley’s] strength. He’s handled the things that haven’t gone so well. Seems to be unaffected by it. I’m sure he is. But he just kind of goes back to work and keeps playing. But I think that makes us feel good that there is a chance here for him to continue to grow.”

With five games left in this season, the balanced approach isn’t working on offense. It’s time for the coaching staff to put their trust in Stanley. It’s the only way to salvage this season in satisfactory fashion.

The post Iowa needs to make quarterback Nate Stanley and passing game top priority appeared first on Land of 10.

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