Leistikow's thoughts: Nate Stanley addresses his critics; Matt Hankins finally nears return

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nate Stanley is the face of this Iowa football team as the third-year starting quarterback. Sometimes, that also means he is the punching bag.

The quiet senior knows he needs to stay off social media as much as possible. But even so, he’s seen and heard some of the negative feedback off his performance in the Hawkeyes’ 10-3 loss against Michigan.

“It always seeps in a little bit,” Stanley said Tuesday as the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes’ prepare to face ninth-ranked Penn State at 6:30 p.m. Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley speaks with reporters, Tuesday, Oct., 8, 2019, at the Hansen Football Performance Center in Iowa City, Iowa.

Stanley was sacked eight times and intercepted three times in a game that was there for the taking. He said the worst postgame bashing he’s seen in 31 games as a starting quarterback was after last year’s 30-24 loss at Penn State. But this one, no doubt, was up there. And Stanley spoke openly about the topic Tuesday.

“It’s never easy. It’s happened in the past, and you always learn new ways how to deal with it. You learn how to handle it,” Stanley said. “The biggest thing is not looking at social media and not paying attention to it at all.”

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley (4) was under pressure all day against Michigan.

It would be ridiculous to pin the Hawkeyes’ loss entirely on Stanley’s shoulders. He wasn’t helped by a leaky offensive line and questionable play-calling from offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. But Stanley also understands that as a senior quarterback, he becomes the easy target.

He said he’d be naïve to think there wouldn’t be criticism, even though he has a 21-10 record as Iowa’s starter and has 60 career touchdown passes against 19 interceptions. He said he relies on his teammates and his Christian faith to understand that he’s not defined by one football performance.

“That’s the biggest comfort I get,” Stanley said. “I know that people are invested into this team, and I know people care about us and want us to be successful. But in the long run, I know that I’m the one going through it with my teammates. We know the work that we’ve put in. If I’ve worked my hardest, then there’s nothing else I can do.”

That's a mature attitude from a respected Hawkeye who will go down as the second three-time captain in school history. How Stanley handles his mental challenges this week might be the biggest key to Iowa's success Saturday night, and it seems he's handling it well.

"You can't have a glass jaw in this sport," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Really, you can't have a glass jaw in anything that's competitive and hard to do. Nobody feels good about what happened, certainly, and nobody feels worse than the people right there on the front."

Offensive linemen are taking “ownership” of their disappointing performance at Michigan.

Eight sacks for minus-65 yards against the Wolverines for a unit that led the Big Ten Conference a year ago in fewest sacks allowed? That creates a humbling film review Sunday. But freshman center Tyler Linderbaum said most, if not all, of the mistakes were correctable, not a case of being physically overmatched.

Pass protection undoubtedly should be the No. 1 priority in practice this week, considering the Nittany Lions have 25 sacks in their 5-0 start.

“Hands here, hands there, eyes where they’re not supposed to be,” Linderbaum said. “All the sacks we had are things we can fix up. It’s just tough to watch, because it was the little things that we just didn’t do right.”

Stanley, who took a beating against an attacking Michigan front, reported that he likes the response that he’s seen from a unit loaded with veterans such as third-year starting tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs and fifth-year seniors Landan and Levi Paulsen.

“They’ve taken all the constructive criticism in stride and have been practicing extremely hard,” Stanley said. “All those guys are great guys with a great mindset — how good they want to be and what we want to accomplish as a team. They know it runs through them. I think they’ve done a great job of taking ownership.”

The return of Brady Reiff could be an underrated positive.

The obvious attention on Iowa’s offensive woes against Michigan will dwarf talk about the defense this week. But the return of Reiff, a fifth-year senior defensive tackle, will be a huge boon for a unit that will need all hands on deck against a Nittany Lions team that’s averaging 47 points a game (ranked fifth in FBS).

The Hawkeyes should have a full-fledged four-man defensive-tackle rotation — Reiff, Cedrick Lattimore, Daviyon Nixon and Austin Schulte — for the first time this season. Reiff hasn’t played since the Sept. 7 game against Rutgers because of a knee injury.

“We missed his leadership and his pursuit to the football, things like that,” Nixon said. “Being an older guy and knowing all the details and things like that. For younger guys on the team, it’s hard to be perfect at the basics like he is. With him back, it’s going to help us a lot more."

Finally, Matt Hankins is nearing a return to action.

The 12-game starting cornerback has been out since suffering a hamstring injury against Rutgers, but he finally returned to practice Monday. Ferentz said Hankins "has a chance to be available" against Penn State, but he also applauded the job freshman D.J. Johnson has done over the past three games as his replacement.

Hankins' return would be the most significant boost for a banged-up secondary. He's a top-end cover corner who was starting opposite Josh Jackson as a true freshman in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl. It's probably optimistic to expect the junior would be ready to start and play an entire game, but Ferentz wasn't totally ruling it out.

"We'll see how the week goes for him," Ferentz said. "... You worry about volume with the kind of injury he had. We'll play it by ear and see what he can do. But he's a veteran player that we have confidence in, certainly."

Iowa needs to get more in the passing game from its tight ends.

Ferentz mostly dismissed that notion Tuesday after the Hawkeyes had no catches from Nate Wieting or Shaun Beyer at Michigan. A season after T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant became the first tight-end teammates to be taken in the first round of the same NFL Draft, Iowa has six catches for 67 yards out of that position through five games.

“Won't hurt, but it's not going to ruin our day if it happens or not,” Ferentz said. “It's great to have good balance, certainly. We haven't had a lot of production this year, but we've been moving the ball and scoring points.”

Wieting played 67 snaps at Michigan but struggled to get open against Michigan’s fast defense. The more the Hawkeyes can make Wieting (two catches, 10 yards for the season) a receiving threat, the more he can help loosen up coverage on everyone else. Right now, it feels like "Tight End U" is on a sabbatical.

Iowa receiver Brandon Smith shows off the gold uniforms the Hawkeyes will be sporting in Saturday's 6:30 p.m., ABC-televised showdown vs. Penn State.

There’s understandable excitement about the atmosphere that awaits the Hawkeyes on Saturday.

Namely, those all-gold uniforms.

Players first saw a video of their Penn State attire in June. Now, they're nearing the day they get to wear them. Although buzz about a uniform shake-up may seem silly to some folks, there’s no denying that some players get some extra positive vibes from the fresh look.

Iowa last wore alternate uniforms in a 55-24 blowout of then-No. 3 Ohio State in 2017.

Nixon, for one, is a big fan. He really likes the yellow face mask and the black “wings” on the front of the jerseys.

“It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful,” Nixon said. “We’re going to make a lot of people melt with those jerseys on, I promise. It’s going to be a good game.”

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.