Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley talks about how he spent his bye week.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Six games into his career as a college starting quarterback, Iowa’s Nate Stanley takes pride in one statistic above all others.
Yes, the sophomore acknowledged Tuesday, his completion percentage could be higher than 57.7. Sure, there are the widely discussed overthrows he’s made on plays that were potential touchdowns. And no, he’s not yet an effective passer when he’s rolling out.
But to have thrown 168 passes and seen only two wind up in the hands of opposing defenders is a testament to proper decision-making, which is the primary role of any quarterback, as Stanley sees it.
“If your interceptions are coming from making bad mental decisions, then that’s definitely a red flag that it’s something you need to improve on,” Stanley said.
“Obviously, you would like to have no interceptions. … They were both throws that I could have made. My fault for both of them.”
Stanley and the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) are coming off their bye week ahead of a showdown at Northwestern (3-3, 1-2) on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2). It will be Stanley’s third road start, and the first two provided widely different results.
Stanley was brilliant in rallying the Hawkeyes past Iowa State 44-41 in overtime Sept. 9. He threw for 333 yards and five touchdowns in that one, including the game-winner to Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
He had a bumpier journey on Sept. 30 at Michigan State — a 17-10 loss in which he provided 197 yards through the air but also dropped the ball deep in Spartan territory to deny his team vital points.
Stanley has impressed his coaches and teammates with his ability to keep his emotions in check in any circumstance. He said he has learned that’s doubly important when the Hawkeyes are visitors.
“With the environment being a little more hostile, you’ve got to be able to relax and just keep yourself calm and poised. Not just for yourself, but for the whole offense. I think just being able to show an even demeanor is something that will allow the offense to operate at a high efficiency,” Stanley said.
“I think just throughout the two games I did a pretty decent job of continuing to encourage teammates and make sure that we were still up to the task and that we still had a chance to win.”
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Junior center James Daniels has learned to appreciate his emotionless quarterback.
“It just shows us he forgets the past play and he just moves on and focuses on the upcoming play, and that helps us,” Daniels said.
“He never hangs his head,” senior tailback Akrum Wadley said of Stanley. “If he threw three, four interceptions, he could come back and throw four, five touchdowns. He never gets down on himself, and he always sticks to the plan.”
That plan includes better placement of the football, Stanley said. He is completing only 54.1 percent of his passes in Big Ten play, mixing some perfect passes with maddening misconnections.
“If you throw a ball and the receiver has it in his hands and it gets knocked away, a lot of people would just blame the receiver for not catching that ball,” Stanley reasoned. “But a lot of times they don’t realize that if the ball could have been a foot to the right or to the left or up or down, that that’s a completion and that’s on the quarterback to make.”
It all starts with footwork, Stanley said. That’s an area that quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe has been hammering home.
“If your feet and your shoulders aren’t pointed at the right place, then you really can’t deliver an accurate ball, or maybe like one out of five times you’ll be able to throw a ball that’s where it should be,” Stanley said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz also pointed to the positive influence O’Keefe has had on Stanley’s development. O’Keefe was Ferentz’s longtime offensive coordinator before taking an assistant coaching job with the Miami Dolphins. He returned to the Hawkeyes this year with the sole focus of mentoring quarterbacks like Stanley.
“It's a really hard and demanding position. I continue to be amazed how much information they have to process and all the things they're responsible for,” Ferentz said. “You're working a mind there, too, not just sharing information but working a mind and trying to get the guys through the highs and lows, and you can imagine some of the lows that Nate has had. He's had some lows already early in his career in six weeks.
“But it's been really impressive how he's persevered and how he has an ability to flush things and move on. A big part of that's Nate, just the way he's wired, but also I think Ken has helped him a lot that way.”
The Iowa coach is 8-8 vs. the Wildcats, starting with a 23-21 loss in Evanston in 1999.
The next step for Stanley is to become a better passer when he’s on the move. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder is a prototypical pocket passer thus far, which is all he was asked to be at Menomonie (Wis.) High School. He conceded that more mobility is a necessary component for the modern quarterback.
“Being able to be under control in the pocket is something that’s more comfortable for a lot of people, but I’m continuing to build on the on-the-run throws,” Stanley said, noting that he picked up some tips from being the understudy to C.J. Beathard last season.
And finally, there’s the deep passes, the obvious misses that tend to send fans into a frenzy of finger-pointing. Senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg cautioned against that.
“He’s got to throw it, but there’s people up front that need to protect, and it’s our job to go out there and catch it,” VandeBerg said. “So every deep ball, there’s more to it than just the two people who touch the football.”
Stanley said he needs to do a better job of reading what defenses are doing, of getting through his progressions quicker so he can spot open receivers downfield sooner.
“If you read it wrong, you come back to it late, maybe you think you have to throw it a little bit farther and you end up overthrowing the ball,” he said.
Still, overthrowing is better than underthrowing, in Stanley’s view. It keeps interception numbers low.
And, for now, that’s his chief concern.