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The Iowa running back scored two fourth-quarter TDs vs. Penn State, high-stepping a little bit on the last one. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Five thoughts about Iowa football and Saturday’s 3 p.m., Fox-televised game at Michigan State …

Through four games, “Put in Tyler Wiegers” hasn’t been a thought.

The backup quarterback is always popular, and you figured he would be after a tight fall-camp battle to win the job. But sophomore Nate Stanley has been the combination of game manager and gunslinger that the Hawkeyes hoped he would be.

In Saturday’s 21-19 loss to No. 4 Penn State, Stanley identified pre-snap matchup advantages that led to clutch touchdown passes to Nick Easley and Akrum Wadley.

“I'll say this about Nate. He hasn't played perfect. Obviously, nobody has,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “But that throw he made right at the end of the half (to Easley) was pretty good. He knew where he was going, and he made a really good throw.

“Same thing on the touchdown to Akrum, he knew what was going on. He knew where to go. So he's done a really nice job for four games into it. We're really pleased.”

Think about this: Stanley started the season against Wyoming by going 0-for-4 with an interception. Since then, he’s completed 64 of 101 passes for 846 yards, with 12 touchdowns and zero picks. That amounts to a 172.9 quarterback rating, which would rank 10th in FBS.

As it is, Stanley’s efficiency mark of 164.4 is 17th-best — second in the Big Ten Conference to Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook and ahead of reigning all-Big Ten quarterbacks Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett.

Most impressive about Stanley’s skill set has been his late poise in tight games. Of Iowa’s seven drives in the fourth quarter and overtime against Iowa State and Penn State — games decided on the final play — Stanley has led the Hawkeyes to five touchdowns and one field goal.

“We’ve been in that situation twice already now, and we’ve come out with a scoring drive,” Stanley said. “That definitely builds confidence that we can continue to do that.”

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Sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley has thrown for 846 yards with 12 TDs and one INT. Chad Leistikow/The Register

 

So ... Penn State was one of Wadley's worst games?

Iowa’s senior running back was tough on himself despite his spectacular 70-yard touchdown catch and 35-yard go-ahead run in Saturdays fourth quarter.

“I felt like that was one of the worst games I ever played here,” he said Tuesday.

Ferentz didn't disagree, saying of Wadley: "He made a couple of really big plays, but we have to get more consistent."

Wadley was in a funk Saturday. His first 11 carries netted minus-3 yards. He was tackled for a safety on a sweep. He even lost a fumble with Iowa driving and trailing 8-7 in the third quarter.

“That was just like a dagger. I’m like, 'Man, I can’t do anything right today,'” Wadley said. “Some teammates, they came up to me and gave me some encouraging words. Especially some coaches. Just bounced back. You’ve got to be resilient.”

Wadley wound up gaining 83 yards on his final eight carries and made a fantastic individual effort on the 70-yard catch, which ended with him soaring into the end zone. (No celebration flag, a week after losing a touchdown for high-stepping at the North Texas 6-yard line.)

“I wouldn’t say it was necessary. I could’ve scored. Just having fun,” Wadley said with a grin. “There was two guys on me — so you can’t bring that back.”

Despite sitting out the second half of the North Texas game with an injury, Wadley is unsurprisingly Iowa’s leader in rushing yards (338), receiving yards (227) and touchdowns (four).

If this past Saturday was one of his worst games, I wonder a good one would look like this Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan.

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Josey Jewell made a good point.

A lot of Tuesday interviews were centered on memories of the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game, in which Michigan State outslugged Iowa 16-13 on L.J. Scott’s 1-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds to go.

Jewell was a key figure on that team, and in that game. He was clearly tackled as Scott turned the corner.

“I don’t know about that. That was fine,” was all he would say Tuesday (with a grin).

But Jewell made a remark that should give Iowa fans encouragement going into Saturday’s rematch. In that instant classic at Lucas Oil Stadium, five current Hawkeye defensive starters were starting underclassmen on that 2015 team: defensive linemen Nathan Bazata and Parker Hesse; linebackers Jewell and Ben Niemann; and safety Miles Taylor.

“We were a younger team then. Definitely less experience,” Jewell said. “I think now, understanding the defense more, (we’re) hopefully fitting gaps a little better.”

On the flip side, Michigan State has one senior starter on defense.

Advantage Iowa.

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A quietly encouraging thing happened this week.

Despite Iowa's defense being on the field for 99 punishing snaps against Penn State, the Hawkeyes emerged without any new injuries.

That scenario gives Iowa a better chance at bolstering key position groups.

The offensive line might be finding consistency. This will be the third straight week, following Ike Boettger’s season-ending Achilles tendon surgery, that the Hawkeyes start the same front five. It’d be nice to get freshman Tristan Wirfs healthy again and into the mix at right tackle. Wirfs sat out last week’s game after suffering an injury in practice.

Brandon Snyder’s fast recovery from April knee surgery could cut into Taylor’s snaps at strong safety. If Snyder can be unleashed soon (as early as next week against Illinois), Iowa’s best combo might be the junior at free safety and emerging sophomore Amani Hooker at strong. Snyder is still Iowa's most trusted guy to bark out the back-end  defensive signals.

I hope we’ll see more trust extended this week to freshmen running backs Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young. They looked good against North Texas, and their emergence would allow Wadley to line up more frequently as a slot receiver.

Talk about a mismatch.

This is a week for the Brian Ferentz offense to control and win a Big Ten road game.

After leaving the defense hanging for most of three quarters against Penn State and holding the ball for only 20:21, the Hawkeyes need to re-assert a ball-control, power offense that has discovered more playmakers through four weeks than expected.

“We’ve got to put points up,” Wadley said. “We’ve got to go. We’ve got to start out fast.

“Michigan State is a really good team, they’ve got a really good defense, just like Penn State. We’ve just got to be ready to fight.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

 

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