Leistikow: Hawkeyes check the needed boxes ahead of Wisconsin showdown

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As each week passes, it seems the Iowa Hawkeyes deliver an emphatic answer to the burning questions about the 2018 football program.

Week 1: How would that makeshift offensive line hold up to Northern Illinois’ sack-masters?

Quite well, thanks.

Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley (84) celebrates with Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith (12) during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Week 2: How could Iowa’s young linebackers contain Iowa State’s big-time playmakers?

They dominated, actually.

Week 3: Could the Hawkeyes and Nate Stanley get their anemic passing game going in time for Big Ten Conference play?

Why, yes. Yes, they could.

The Hawkeyes toyed with visiting Northern Iowa on Saturday night, walloping their FCS visitors 38-14 in a game that wasn't nearly that close before a sellout crowd of 69,250 at Kinnick Stadium.

And on a day that saw Wisconsin get humbled at home against Brigham Young, the Hawkeyes are showing they’re ready to stare down the Badgers for the Big Ten West title.

How ready?

We’ll find out right here next week.

The Badgers will come in for Saturday’s 7:30 p.m., Fox-televised showdown staggering and snarling. They lost 24-21 to the Cougars — a jarring defeat, considering they throttled the same team by 34 points on the road a year ago.

Wisconsin just doesn’t look like how Wisconsin was supposed to look.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook still makes some head-shaking decisions a third-year starter shouldn't make. The vaunted Badgers defense allowed nearly seven yards a carry.

All 28 panelists in the preseason Big Ten media poll picked the Badgers to rule the West; 13 of them had Wisconsin winning the whole thing.

It was a race for second, they said.

And maybe it still ends up that way.

After all, Wisconsin is the West king until someone takes it down.

But although the rest of the West looks average at best, the Hawkeyes aren’t slipping.

Nebraska (to Troy), Northwestern (to Akron) and Purdue (to Eastern Michigan) have joined Wisconsin in suffering puzzling home losses this month.

Iowa, meanwhile, is 3-0 through nonconference play for the second straight year. But this 3-0 feels a lot different.

"The way college football is right now, if you don't show up every Saturday," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, "you could be in for a bad surprise. And then you've got trouble with your team.

"We're hardly a perfect team right now, but our guys have been focused. They have a good attitude. ... At least so far, we have played hard three straight weeks now."

ANALYSIS:Offense finds a groove, spreads the love in blowout win over UNI

The defensive line is far more dominant. UNI gained just 22 yards on its first 23 plays from scrimmage and had just 6 rushing yards on the night.

The offensive line is sturdier than expected. Keegan Render has been a terrific replacement for James Daniels at center, and sophomore right tackle Tristan Wirfs continues to show the raw power of a future NFL first-rounder.

The linebacker rotation, a big offseason question, looks solidified with Jack Hockaday in the middle. And Nick Niemann has been great, so far, on the outside.

And that embattled passing game?

Well, no matter who the opponent was this week, Iowa needed to show that it could push the ball downfield through the air.

And Stanley stepped up to the latest challenge Saturday night against the Panthers. Save for a poor decision on his lone interception, the 6-foot-4 quarterback delivered some pro-level throws.

He got preseason all-American tight end Noah Fant (five catches, 99 yards) going early, and rediscovered last year’s leading receiver, Nick Easley (10 catches, 103 yards).

“It ended up breaking open a little bit tonight," Fant said. "Definitely progress, but we want to keep getting better.”

In Stanley’s previous six games, he completed 50.4 percent of his passes and averaged just 130 yards an outing.

Saturday, he completed 82.1 percent (23-for-28) for 309 yards, his highest total since tossing for 333 in his second career start at Iowa State in 2017.

Even though the first-team Hawkeyes defense gave up its first touchdown of the season after Iowa built a 38-0 third-quarter lead, this was a night this team needed.

On Wisconsin? 

Bring on Wisconsin.

I'm not saying (yet) the Hawkeyes will beat the Badgers, who were a 10½-point favorite against Iowa in preseason betting lines. Now, this looks like more of an even matchup.

That closing of the gap almost seems hard to fathom, considering Wisconsin thumped the Hawkeyes 38-14 a year ago in Madison and brought back most of its key parts. (Hence, the preseason media love.)

Iowa players, as you'd expect, haven't forgotten.

“Everyone in our program’s competitive," defensive end Parker Hesse said. "Nobody walked away from Madison last year feeling good about anything we did. We all had a bad taste in our mouth; and we want to right what was wrong."

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.