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Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley feels less pressure than he did in 2017. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nate Stanley understands he cannot put too much pressure on himself when the Iowa quarterback returns to his home state to face Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.

He knows this, because he’s made that mistake before.

Statistically speaking, the Hawkeyes’ Nov. 11, 2017, game in Madison was the worst of Stanley’s three-year starting career. He was 8-for-24 and was sacked four times in a 38-14 loss, in which Iowa’s only touchdowns were scored by defensive back Josh Jackson. The Hawkeyes' 66 yards of total offense remains the worst output of the 21-year Kirk Ferentz era.

“Very nervous,” Stanley recalled of his emotions two years ago as a 20-year-old sophomore. “Not really knowing what to expect, as far as the environment.”

He remembers how loud it was, especially near the legendary Wisconsin student section. Even a Wisconsin native hadn’t realized how loud 80,462 roaring Badgers fans could be.

“I think I put too much pressure on myself for that game,” Stanley said Tuesday. “Now (I) just know that if I do my part, my teammates are going to do their part, too.”

It’s a difficult thing, for such pressure to magically melt away — even for a seasoned senior.

Stanley has felt the weight of the Hawkeye football world on his broad shoulders. Even though he’s 23-11 as a collegiate starter, Stanley has at times has taken criticism about an inconsistent offense that leans too heavily on Phil Parker’s reliable defense.

Returning home — his native Menomonie, Wisconsin, is 200 miles from Madison — offers a chance at redemption. Although Stanley, naturally, doesn’t magnify the personal importance of facing Wisconsin, his teammates understand the situation.

“It’s his last four (regular-season) games. It’s his last visit to his home state. It means a little bit more,” junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “You can tell he wants to win this game and show that he’s an elite quarterback. Which he is.”

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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, a native of Menomonie, Wis., will return to Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 9. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Going back to Wisconsin also is a reminder of his biggest fans, starting with his parents. Jay and Donita Stanley will be in attendance Saturday, as will a large contingent of family and friends. Stanley estimated about 150 were in attendance two years ago, and the number will be in that ballpark at 3 p.m. Saturday when No. 18 Iowa faces No. 16 Wisconsin.

“My parents have been my biggest supporters my whole career,” Stanley said. “They know how hard it is, just from what I’ve told them. The people back home ... also understand how tough it is to be successful.

“You deal with school, you deal with football, and all the things we have to deal with on a daily basis.”

Stanley’s teammates understand his dedication. Running back Toren Young spoke Tuesday about Stanley staying late after meetings to watch additional film.

After this semester, Stanley will have only one class remaining to get his degree in health and human physiology, with a minor in psychology. Stanley has been a model citizen, athlete and student in 3½ years at the University of Iowa.

He’s delivered some memorable moments. He’s helped to take down mighty Ohio State with a five-touchdown passing day in 2017. He’s 3-for-3 against Iowa State, 2-for-2 against Minnesota and Nebraska, 2-for-2 in bowl games.

He’ll end up as one of the top passers in Hawkeye history. With 992 more yards through the air — well within reach for the Big Ten passing-yards leader with at least five games remaining — he’ll pass Drew Tate (8,292) for No. 2 in career passing yardage. If he adds nine more touchdown passes to his 62, he would crack the all-time top 10 in the Big Ten Conference.

Yet the signature road win has eluded him.

Iowa is 0-3 in road games against ranked Big Ten foes in the Stanley era (2017 at Wisconsin; 2018 at Penn State; 2019 at Michigan). In those three games, the numbers are striking: Stanley is 49-for-115 passing (42.6%) for 506 yards, with zero touchdown passes and six interceptions. He’s been sacked 15 times and the Hawkeyes, remarkably, have zero offensive touchdowns in those games.

Ferentz is quick to point out the blame is widespread and shouldn't center on the quarterback. Ferentz is confident that No. 4 will carry more swagger into Madison than he did two years ago.

“He'll still be antsy out there, and it's a tough road game in a tough environment,” Ferentz said, “but he's played in those now.

“I think he'll probably handle it a little bit better. Hopefully all of us around him will handle it better, too, and help him a little bit more. Because there wasn't much good that we did up there a couple years ago. And we'll find out it was either an aberration or a trend.”

What a story it would be for Stanley to rewrite Hawkeye history, and perhaps his own legacy, in Madison.

It’ll be a steep challenge. Iowa is a nine-point underdog. If the Hawkeyes win, they’ll still be in the mix for a Big Ten West Division title and a spot in the Dec. 7 conference title game.

Stanley paused as he thought about his college career entering the final days.

He knows, deep down, that Saturday is the opportunity of a lifetime. Maybe his last big one.

He's given thought to how he wants his Iowa career to finish. 

“Obviously, you want to finish in Indianapolis. That’s the ultimate goal,” Stanley said. “Coach always preaches one day at a time, one game at a time. And I think everybody’s bought into that. But at the same time, we all realize we have the opportunity to do something special. But for us to do that, we have to start with this game."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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