IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nate Stanley completed a pass to an opposing player before he connected with one of his own receivers Saturday.
He fumbled the ball away twice in his own territory.
So his starting debut as Iowa quarterback was a disaster, right?
Not at all.
Stanley never faltered while his defense kept erasing his mistakes. He rebounded to throw three touchdown passes — showing beautiful touch on each — and led the Hawkeyes to a convincing season-opening 24-3 victory over Wyoming before an announced crowd of 68,075 at Kinnick Stadium.
“Nate is always calm. I have never seen him panic, even after he got sacked. His face always stays the same. He always comes back swinging,” Iowa senior tailback Akrum Wadley said. “He is a warrior.”
It takes one to know one. Wadley rushed for 116 yards on 24 carries to keep Iowa’s offense moving.
It was Stanley who occasionally gave it an extra gear.
The sophomore misfired on his first four passing attempts, one of which was deflected and picked off by Des Moines native Rico Gafford. It wasn’t until the second quarter that Stanley found wide receiver Nick Easley for a 19-yard gain near the Wyoming sideline. The pass was underthrown, and a Wyoming defender appeared in position to make a play if he’d only turned around. No matter. It seemed to remind Stanley that he won Iowa’s quarterbacking job this summer for a reason.
And that reason was apparent five plays later. On a fourth-and-goal from the Wyoming 2-yard line, the Hawkeyes never considered kicking a field goal that would have tied the score. Stanley rolled to his right and calmly lofted a pass to an open tight end Noah Fant for his first career touchdown.
“I knew that at that point, we had the run game going a little bit, so just a run a play that we’ve always gotten a couple of yards on in practices,” Stanley said of his rising confidence level.
Added Fant: “(Offensive coordinator) Brian (Ferentz) called the play in and we strapped up and we were ready to go. We were very confident in what he was calling.”
The Iowa tight end expects Nate Stanley to spread the ball around, but will he catch 24 TD passes? Mark Emmert/HawkCentral
Stanley connected with Fant again just before halftime, another perfectly placed pass on a seam route good for a 27-yard touchdown and a 14-3 Iowa lead.
“We caught the defense in a bad situation, and Nate did a great job delivering the ball,” Fant said. “The safety rolled down outside of me, and I thought he was going to come on a blitz. He didn’t. He stayed out. The outside linebacker tried to match me from the outside. I just slipped him and kept running.”
Stanley saw the same thing Fant did, and he had plenty of time to look because of superb blocking by the offensive line. That play, Fant said, should be a taste of things to come for the Iowa offense.
“He knows where people are going to be at. He knows how fast different players run different routes, so I think he has good chemistry with the whole team, good chemistry with all the receivers,” Fant said. “I believe he’s going to spread the ball around (in) a really good way this season. I expect great things from him.”
Stanley only spread it around to three receivers Saturday, finishing 8-of-15 for 125 yards. It was all Iowa needed, thanks to its vise grip of a defense.
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“I was really pleased with him. He went through some rough times out there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Stanley. “He didn't get rattled. I'm sure he was internally, but he stayed strong, just stayed steady out there, and some of those throws that he made were pretty impressive.”
Easley led Iowa with four catches for 77 yards and a spectacular 45-yard touchdown that essentially sealed the win. Easley is a walk-on, a junior-college transfer — a Newton kid just itching for a chance.
He certainly ran with it Saturday.
In the third quarter, Easley took off on a crossing route while Stanley faked a handoff and set up in the pocket. Again, he had more time than he needed. But eventually he heaved a pass that Easley took in on his fingertips just ahead of a defender at the 5-yard line. From there, Easley fought his way into the corner of the end zone.
“It was a great feeling coming down with the ball and seeing everyone yelling, seeing my teammates run down,” Easley said.
“I was definitely hungry for the end zone on that one.”
That left Stanley’s totals as three touchdowns, three turnovers. It was the kind of imperfect performance that separates the optimists from the pessimists among Iowa fans.
Even Stanley agreed.
“I feel like I’m kind of a perfectionist, so a little upset with some stuff that went on with the ball security,” he said when asked to assess his overall performance. “But my teammates did a great job of picking me up.”
Still, it’s worth noting that Stanley is the first Hawkeye quarterback to throw for three touchdowns in his starting debut since Ricky Stanzi in 2008. Stanzi went 26-9 as Iowa’s starter, including three bowl victories.
Even pessimistic Iowa fans would sign up for that.