Leistikow: Framing Nate Stanley's Iowa career as he enters final start at Holiday Bowl

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

SAN DIEGO — This has certainly become an unexpected week of deep reflection in the Iowa football program, with Tuesday’s death of legendary coach Hayden Fry still fresh as the Hawkeyes headed Saturday to the Holiday Bowl.

Eventually, it got me to thinking about this 2019 Iowa team. More specifically, Nate Stanley. How will he eventually be remembered among Iowa's all-time quarterbacks?

With Fry, as we talk about what happened on the field during his 20 years, we often focus our reflection on big wins.

The breakthrough against Nebraska in 1981. Beating Michigan as the No. 1 team in 1985. The miracle at Ohio State in 1987. The three clutch road wins in 1990 to deliver Fry’s third Rose Bowl in 10 years.

We celebrate Fry’s 11-year Iowa football heyday, the 91-38-5 record from 1981-91 that included a sterling 62-24-4 Big Ten mark.

We don’t focus much on Fry’s other nine years, including his final seven, which saw the program deteriorate and Iowa go 52-51-1.

Back to Stanley.

In the heat of the moment, it's easy to focus on the polarizing aspects of his three-year starting career at Iowa.

Nate Stanley comes onto the field for Iowa's senior-day game against Illinois, which became a 19-10 win. Stanley finished his career 16-5 in Kinnick as a starter, and takes a 26-12 career mark into the Holiday Bowl.

Pro throws … and overthrows.

Two wins against top-10 opponents … and big-game losses, including an 0-3 mark against Wisconsin.

The impressive 26-12 record as a starter is hard to ignore; so is the lack of a Big Ten West championship in three years while having two first-round NFL Draft picks (in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant), possibly two more in the future (in Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa) plus three consensus all-Americans (in Josey Jewell, Josh Jackson and Keith Duncan).

With time, though, I think we’ll remember Stanley for the good things and the positive impact he had on Hawkeye football.

The raw numbers

Stanley will leave Iowa with the program's second-highest touchdown pass total. He has 66 in three seasons as a starter, eight shy of the great Chuck Long’s 74 in four seasons.

With 204 passing yards against a susceptible USC secondary in the Holiday Bowl, Stanley (8,089) will pass Drew Tate for No. 2 all-time at Iowa and will only trail Long (10,461), who had the benefit of starting for four seasons.

If — and it’s a big if — Stanley and the Hawkeyes can knock off the Trojans in San Diego, the quarterback will finish tied with Ricky Stanzi as No. 2 all-time at Iowa with 27 wins and join Stanzi as the only Hawkeye starters to win three bowl games.

His memorable wins

Of Stanley’s 26, these five stand out (ranking them in reverse order for mildly dramatic effect):

No. 5 — at Indiana, 2018: Stanley threw for 320 yards and a career-high six touchdown passes, including one on a highlight-reel scramble to find Nick Easley in the back of the end zone, in Iowa’s 42-16 win.

No. 4 — vs. Minnesota, 2019: The crispest performance of Stanley’s senior year, he delivered confident throws to push Iowa to touchdowns on its first three drives against the seventh-ranked, 9-0 Gophers in a 23-19 win.

No. 3 — at Iowa State, 2017: A five-touchdown performance in his second career start with a career-high 333 yards in his second start, Stanley got his first of three wins against the Cyclones by coolly hitting Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a walk-off touchdown in overtime.

No. 2 — vs. Mississippi State, 2019 Outback Bowl: The degree of difficulty — going against the nation’s No. 1 defense with three first-round NFL Draft picks — makes this one of Stanley’s finest performances. He delivered three touchdown passes in a 27-22 upset win that gave Iowa a No. 25 final national ranking.  

No. 1 — vs. Ohio State, 2017: No Iowa quarterback before or after Stanley will bludgeon the Buckeyes like he did. Stanley was the national quarterback of the week after his 20-for-33, 226-yard, five-touchdown performance in Iowa’s 55-24 demolition of the nation’s No. 3-ranked team.

His clutch throws

Although the throw to beat in Stanley’s career remains the 27-yarder to Smith-Marsette on third-and-22 in Ames — a critical bullet between four Cyclones that sparked an eventual 18-17 Iowa victory — he’ll always have this distinction:

In back-to-back years against Nebraska, he made pressure-packed throws to set up game-winning field goals.

In 2018, it was a fourth-and-8 dart through the rain to Hockenson for 10 yards. Miguel Recinos was true from 41 yards two plays later to produce a 31-28 win at Kinnick Stadium.

In 2019, it was consecutive 22-yarders over the middle to Smith-Marsette and Sam LaPorta — on the heels of an overturned beauty to Nico Ragaini — that set up Duncan’s 48-yard winner.

That’s the stuff Kirk Ferentz will remember about his three-year starter.

“That’s human nature (to) jump on the things that maybe we could’ve done and should’ve done," Ferentz told the Register. "But you study the body of work. And if his career ended today, that’s how I’d remember him. Those last three plays. Because those balls were perfectly thrown.”

But, like with Fry, there's an intangible element to Stanley's legacy.

That's where Stanley has arguably left as big a mark as any.

He's been durable, a rock for a locker room that has faced disappointing moments over the past three seasons. But, under his leadership, Iowa bounced back and finished strong in the last two. He has a chance to finish his career on a four-game winning streak.

Stanley is just the second three-year captain (as voted by his peers) in program history, joining Josey Jewell.

That personality that motivates others and cares has finally spilled out of Stanley's stoic demeanor as his college career reached its final games. After the senior-day win against Illinois, Stanley wept in front of reporters as he reflected on his journey

He has revealed that there were points in his career that he struggled to get past criticism. But as Stanley's career winds down, he's noticed that more people are beginning to appreciate what he's meant to the Hawkeye program.

"Very special to be around town and have somebody come up to you and say, ‘Hey, really enjoyed watching you play these last three years,'" Stanley recently told the Register. "Things like that make you reflect on it a little bit more.

"I wouldn’t trade these last four years for anything. There were ups and downs, but everybody’s been extremely supportive. I’m excited to see what this next chapter has.”

But before he tries his hand at the NFL — and at 6-foot-4, 243 pounds with a strong right arm, he'll get a good look — Stanley has four more quarters to leave a final mark on his Hawkeye career.

Can he get those 204 yards against the nation's 99th-ranked pass defense to reach No. 2 on Iowa's all-time passing list?

Can he match Stanzi's 27 wins and 3-0 bowl record?

A 10th win and a top-15 national finish for the Hawkeyes sure would be nice.

But no matter what, Stanley's Iowa career will gain more appreciation over time.

"All I know is what I know about him as a person and player," Ferentz said. "Boy, I'm so glad he played with us. He's had a tremendous career."

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.