Iowa Hawkeye analysis: Finding new receivers was key to a wild win
AMES, Ia. — Who says Iowa doesn’t have enough receiving options?
Quarterback Nate Stanley found nine of them in Saturday’s 44-41 overtime victory over Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium.
Three of them — Ihmir Smith-Marsette, T.J. Hockenson and James Butler — made the first catches of their Hawkeye careers. Senior fullback Drake Kulick doubled his career reception total by snaring two passes. Tight end Peter Pekar even grabbed his second pass in four years at Iowa.
All of the contributions were vital as Stanley calmly ran through his progressions, completing 27 of 41 passes for 333 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“The defense that they were running, they did a great job at taking away some stuff,” Stanley said of the Cyclones. “It just depends on where somebody is in the progression, so just being able to get to the second and third receiver, I think that’s really what plays into the amount of people that caught passes today.”
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Iowa’s third scoring drive was emblematic of its spread-it-around mentality. At his own 37-yard line, Stanley looked deep before realizing that Kulick had escaped the backfield alone near the Hawkeye sideline, an easy pitch and catch that netted 26 yards.
Two plays later, Stanley homed in on another Hawkeye who has primarily been used as a blocker this season — redshirt freshman tight end Hockenson. It was third-and-15, and Hockenson also slipped unnoticed underneath the Iowa State coverage, rumbling for 24 yards with his first career reception on just his second target.
It was déjà vu seconds later, this time Hockenson gaining 17 yards to the Cyclone 1-yard line, with tailback Akrum Wadley diving for the score that put Iowa ahead 21-10 one play later.
Hockenson said it was a matter of Iowa State paying careful attention to his tight end counterpart Noah Fant, who scored two touchdowns in a season-opening win over Wyoming.
“We knew that they were going to double Noah, like anybody would. I mean, why not?” said Hockenson, a Chariton native. “And it was going to be man-to-man through the rest of the (receivers). So I just made a play when it was called. Stanley has trust in me to throw the ball to me. I was just doing my job.”
Only three Hawkeyes caught passes in the 24-3 victory against Wyoming. Iowa also didn’t convert a third down until the third quarter of that game. These were both obvious points of emphasis Saturday against Iowa State. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said as much.
Hockenson’s first catch was an example of where a more varied pass game resulted in a key big gain for Iowa. There were others:
- Facing a first-and-20 from his 47-yard line after a holding penalty, Stanley targeted Iowa’s newest tailback option for the first time this season. James Butler, a graduate transfer who was spelling the workhorse Wadley, turned it into a 26-yard gain. Iowa took a 14-10 halftime lead moments later on a 17-yard touchdown pass to Matt VandeBerg.
- Trailing 31-21 with the ball at the Cyclone 34-yard line, Stanley found Wadley in space, resulting in a 19-yard gain. The Hawkeyes eventually scored on a 15-yard pass to Smith-Marsette.
- On the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes had a third-and-2 from their 33. Stanley found Fant in single coverage this time, and hit him for nine yards. Fant had three catches for 30 yards, none bigger.
- Iowa faced only one third down on its overtime drive, needing four yards from the Cyclone 19. A field goal would have forced a second overtime, but the Hawkeyes weren’t content with that. Stanley connected with junior-college transfer Nick Easley in the seam, and Easley turned that into a 10-yard gain.
Two plays later, the game was over. But those four plays — to four different receivers — made the win possible.
Iowa converted 7 of 15 third downs Saturday, with four scoring drives of 89 yards or longer. The Hawkeyes were 6-for-6 in red-zone scoring. And they gave future opponents much more to think about.
Like Hockenson and Kulick as receiving options.
“He has trust in all his receivers,” Hockenson said of Stanley. “He’s going to throw it where it’s open. … We’re a tight-knit group.”
As for Kulick’s new role as playmaker, Hockenson said:
“That’s awesome for him. He doesn’t get too many like that. He makes jokes a lot of the time how he’s just a fullback.”
A fullback with two catches for 29 yards now. Thanks to Stanley and a different kind of “spread” offense.