IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s Nate Stanley doesn’t carry himself with the exuberance of Drew Tate or the bravado of Ricky Stanzi, two revered three-year starting quarterbacks of the Kirk Ferentz era.
But on Saturday, the sheepish Stanley passed one on the Hawkeyes career passing-touchdown list (Stanzi). And he’ll soon catch the other (Tate). And if he keeps this up, he’ll pass the great Chuck Long, too.
Stanley is somewhat unassumingly on his way to becoming one of the best and perhaps most underappreciated quarterbacks in Iowa history.
The senior signal-caller delivered yet another quietly masterful performance in No. 19 Iowa’s 30-0 manhandling of Rutgers before 61,808 fans at Kinnick Stadium.
Three more touchdown throws, giving him 58 in his Hawkeye career. Another 236 yards. No turnovers, for the second straight week. And, most importantly, total command of a buzzing Hawkeye offense.
That’s the word I kept coming back to as I mulled how to describe Stanley's on-field demeanor through two games of the 2019 season.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz came up with a few other C-word descriptors.
“He really looks like he's comfortable and in control,” Ferentz said. “That's something you can't hand a player.”
Iowa asks a lot from its quarterback. He must know the opponent’s defensive personnel and how they might trick him. He must know the speed and ability of his own running backs and receivers and where exactly they'll be. He must be able to direct pass protection at the line of scrimmage, so that he has the time to survey the field.
And after all that, he needs to deliver the perfect throw.
That’s the part we focus on the most; where the ball ends up. But there’s so much more to being a commanding quarterback, and Stanley on Saturday continued to demonstrate why he’s the most irreplaceable player on this team.
“You’re always looking for the biggest profit you can get,” Stanley explained, revealing a window into his thoughts at the line of scrimmage. “(If) it’s zone coverage, you’re alerted to a certain route. Or man coverage, you’re alerted to a matchup.”
In other words, Stanley is trained to find the defense’s weak spots on every play.
To take advantage, it helps to have a growing pool of playmakers.
And, for the second straight Saturday, Iowa showed it has some. Eight more receivers caught balls against Rutgers after 10 did against Miami (Ohio).
Stanley didn’t waste much time finding Rutgers' weak spot Saturday: the safeties.
After Iowa opened the game with four safe plays — three runs, one short pass — the Hawkeyes lined up in shotgun, with Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young in the backfield. Rutgers was caught flat-footed when Stanley unfurled a deep pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, a perfect lob down the middle of the field for a 58-yard touchdown.
That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.
“Stanley’s out there on another level, just telling us what he wants,” said Smith-Marsette, who finished with four catches for 113 yards. “We’re just coming through and executing.”
Stanley isn’t going to be perfect on every throw. What quarterback is?
Save your criticisms about a few missed targets Saturday.
Sure, he air-mailed Brandon Smith on what could’ve been a 32-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But what happened next? A well-timed 25-yard screen pass to Ivory Kelly-Martin. Then, a pass that moved him past Stanzi’s 56 touchdowns into third-place all-time — 7 yards to Tyrone Tracy Jr. in the corner of the north end zone.
That might’ve been Stanley’s prettiest ball of the day, capping an impressive 97-yard touchdown drive that put Iowa firmly in control, 14-0.
“There’s always room to improve,” Stanley said. “There’s always certain plays in a game where (I think), ‘I wish I hadn’t missed that throw’ or ‘I wish I would’ve seen that.’”
Stanley added his 58th career touchdown pass (to just 16 interceptions, by the way) on a third-quarter strike to Smith-Marsette.
For the day, he finished 16-for-28 for 236 yards.
“Nate was great,” Smith said. “He was pretty much on point today.”
Stanley's season line: 37-for-58 (that’s 63.8% completions) for 488 yards and six TDs with no picks.
A year ago, Stanley’s line through two games was less inspiring: 27-for-51 for 274 yards with one score.
One other thing to add in the underappreciated category?
Stanley’s throws have drawn five defensive pass-interference flags for 74 yards — two with Smith-Marsette against Miami, and one each Saturday via tosses to Nico Ragaini, Smith and Tracy. That’s not an accident.
Much of that is Stanley recognizing an advantageous matchup on the edge and throwing the ball up where the defender can’t get to the ball but his receiver can. That makes a grabby defensive back panic. One flag got Iowa out of a third-and-10 hole from its own 2; another from its own 3.
“Especially if you make (the receiver) go up and get the ball,” Stanley said, “it’s hard for the DB to look back and make plays.”
So, now the real fun begins. The two-game appetizer is over and the 10-game main course of Iowa’s rigorous 2019 schedule is about to hit — starting next Saturday in Ames.
For the Hawkeyes to accomplish their goal of winning a Big Ten Conference championship, they’re going to have to go into hostile environments and find more wins than losses — at Jack Trice, at the Big House, in Chicago, at Camp Randall and, finally, in Lincoln on Black Friday.
Stanley’s had some road-game duds in the past, no doubt. But he’s different now. He admitted he was trying to do too much at times last year, and now he’s just focused on what he can do best.
So far, it’s working.
Tate is next on the charts at 61 touchdown passes; Long is looming with 74.
“We've had a lot of really good quarterbacks here,” Ferentz said. “Nate is carving out his niche and any recognition he gets I think is well deserved. Nobody has worked harder.”
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.