Leistikow: Progress of Nate Stanley, Iowa offense apparent in imperfect win at Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — Embrace all the good and accept a little of the bad with Nate Stanley.
Because that's exactly where Iowa football sits through five games of the 2018 season.
Lots of promise, lots of progress, a bit of frustration.
The Hawkeyes are 4-1 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten Conference after Saturday's 48-31 win at Minnesota. Better than most thought they'd be at this point, and that's a credit to their junior quarterback.
"He’s a rock," tight end T.J. Hockenson said. "And we all lean on him."
The hardest-working guy in the building, receiver Nick Easley said.
"He does things the right way, every day," Easley said. ".... Just someone everybody looks up to.”
Yet halfway through the game, a smattering of fans reached out to me to say that it was time for Iowa to look to the bench for another quarterback.
How quickly some forget.
A year ago, Iowa compiled a whopping 20 offensive points in its first three Big Ten road games combined. It averaged a flimsy 203 yards of offense in those games.
This year’s offense has an assortment of playmakers. Ihmir Smith-Marsette showed electric speed on two big plays Saturday; Brandon Smith could be coming of age, with a career-high five catches. The tight ends, Hockenson and Noah Fant, are two of the best in the country and combined for three touchdowns.
And they all have the right triggerman at the helm.
"He puts us in situations out there where we can make plays," Easley said.
So much progress is being made with this offense. Sometimes, it gets masked by the few mistakes.
Of course, Stanley would love to have a do-over on that one puzzling throw with 72 seconds left in the first half, the one that brought Minnesota back into the game.
With Iowa leading, 28-10, Stanley rolled right and saw no open receivers. Instead of throwing the football out of bounds, Stanley inexplicably flipped the ball directly into the clutches of Minnesota’s Jacob Huff.
First-and-goal, Gophers. Then, 28-17 at halftime.
“Not a smart play. Should have just thrown the ball away," Stanley said. "Definitely one I want back.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz addressed that boo-boo afterward as a no-no.
"He’s a better player than that. And he knows that," Ferentz said. "I don’t think anybody felt worse.”
But you know what happened next?
Stanley's teammates rushed to encourage him. They told him, we'll get them next time. Flush it.
Stanley and the Hawkeyes drove 53 yards to start the second half. That total included a gorgeous throw to Smith for 26 yards up the left sideline on third-and-3. The drive resulted in a Miguel Recinos field goal. Not a touchdown, but an important response to adversity.
And by game’s end, the box score showed that Iowa had piled up 48 points and gained 420 yards; Stanley had thrown for more than 300 yards; and the Hawkeyes had won handily in their latest-since-2001 road opener.
Stanley made a combination of smart and sensational plays Saturday.
His scramble and location of Smith-Marsette up the left sideline for a 60-yard touchdown pass — Iowa’s longest play of the season — showed his ability to improvise and produced a quick 14-0 lead.
His ability to twice read Minnesota’s defense and expertly set up Ivory Kelly-Martin for wide-open screen passes (gaining 15 and 25 yards) fueled a pair of touchdown drives.
And his gorgeous 21-yard toss, feathered over the middle to Easley, pushed the Hawkeyes’ lead to 28-10.
When Iowa needed a clutch conversion, more often than not, Stanley zipped the ball on target, perfectly in stride. Iowa was 10-for-19 on third downs; 2-for-2 on fourth downs, including the ingenious fake field goal flip for a Hockenson TD in the second quarter.
Though the offense sputtered early in the fourth quarter, when it came time to put the game away, Stanley delivered what the running game couldn't. His final line: 23-for-39 for 314 yards with those four TDs and that one pick.
That's more than 8 yards per attempt.
On a day when the Hawkeyes averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, they were able to ride their big quarterback's right arm.
The defense, of course, deserves due credit. Even though it gave up 31 points, remember that 14 of those were on scoring drives of 6 and 3 yards.
Anthony Nelson had three of Iowa's five sacks. The three rookie starters in the defensive backfield — Riley Moss, Julius Brents and Geno Stone — combined for four second-half interceptions.
We saw last year what happened when Iowa couldn't move the football consistently: a 17-10 loss at Michigan State; a 17-10 loss at Northwestern; a drubbing at Wisconsin.
Now, the Hawkeyes have a good and improving offense and a very good defense.
And a very good quarterback.
Even if he makes the occasional blunder.
“That’s just Nate being Nate. He tries to make a play all the time," safety Amani Hooker said. "Sometimes it hurts him. But overall, he’s a great player. A great quarterback.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.