Iowa analysis: Two fumbles are too much for Hawkeyes to overcome

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Nate Stanley’s blooper-reel play summed up Iowa’s Saturday afternoon.

One second, the ball was in the Iowa quarterback’s hand as he prepared to launch it to an open receiver in the end zone. The next, it was somehow falling toward the grass near his feet, where Michigan State’s Joe Bachie happily scooped it up for a fumble recovery.

“No, I’ve never had that happen to me before,” Stanley said. “That’s something you have to deal with.”

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, left, throws a pass against Michigan State's Demetrius Cooper (98) during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Welcome to the Hawkeyes-Spartans rivalry, Nate — where tight games are the norm and weirdness always seems to prevail.

That means every mistake looms a little larger. And Stanley’s misfortune was compounded on Iowa’s next drive, when freshman wide receiver Brandon Smith took a screen pass and headed down his sideline with the ball not secured. Josiah Scott jarred it loose, Chris Frey pounced on it and the Hawkeyes were denied again in Spartan territory.

Michigan State won 17-10 at Spartan Stadium, holding the Hawkeyes to 231 yards. But Iowa gained 102 of those on two promising third-quarter drives that ended with turnovers by young players.

Stanley, a sophomore in his first year as a starter, has thrown 12 touchdowns against only one interception. But he has shown a tendency to put the ball on the turf, and that bit him at the worst possible time Saturday.

“It looked like a freak play, from where I was standing watching the replay,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Stanley’s fumble at the Michigan State 7-yard line. “Tough opportunity there. But you’ve got to play through those things.”

The problem is, Iowa isn’t equipped to play through such things at the moment. Its running game is stuck in neutral, producing only 19 yards Saturday.

The passing game moves in fits and starts, but not effectively enough to go it alone.

Stanley’s 16 completions averaged 12.3 yards. But he also threw 15 incomplete passes. Iowa generated only 11 first downs, nine through the air. It converted a mere four third downs in 14 tries.

The Hawkeye defense, after surrendering a too-easy opening touchdown to the Spartans, played well enough to win. They kept giving the offense chances, 11 in all. Squandering two of them with fumbles was too much to overcome.

“We wish it wouldn’t happen but it did,” Stanley said. “And we have to learn from it.”

Smith’s turnover was a case of a rookie “trying to do a little bit too much,” Ferentz said, likening it to fellow freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s fumble on his first career touch in Week 1.

“He’s going to have to grow through that and hopefully be better the next time at it,” Ferentz said.

Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, a senior leader, went over to Smith to keep his spirits up.

“But now we’ll go back and look and see if there’s something he could have changed about that and move on,” VandeBerg said.

Stanley and Smith figure to be integral parts of Iowa’s offense for years to come. Their mistakes certainly weren’t the only reason the Hawkeyes lost. But their maturation needs to accelerate if Iowa is going to reach its potential this year. The team plays in too many tight games to tolerate errors.

“We just need to stay positive as a team and go on to the next game,” freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson said after a career-high 46 receiving yards. “It’s tough, but we need to do it.”

The next game is an 11 a.m. homecoming matchup against lowly Illinois on Saturday. There should be no way Iowa loses that one … if it holds on to the ball.