Pinstripe Bowl story lines: In Nate Stanley, Iowa has the QB edge vs. Boston College

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

NEW YORK — In football, there’s no more important position than quarterback.

And in sophomore Nate Stanley, Iowa has the upper hand in Wednesday’s 4:15 p.m. CT Pinstripe Bowl matchup against Boston College at Yankee Stadium.

Stanley has shown consistent improvement throughout what’s been an impressive season for a first-time starter.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley  looks to pass against Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa.

He’s shaken off early-season fumble issues. He’s delivered some magnificent deep throws down the stretch after struggling with overthrows. And he’s shown remarkable sturdiness in the pocket.

Stanley’s signature play of the season was against Ohio State, with second-team all-Big Ten Conference defensive end Sam Hubbard draped around his legs. He stood strong, and zipped a fastball to T.J. Hockenson for a 2-yard touchdown in what would become a 55-24 Hawkeye rout.

Stanley’s size (6-foot-5, 238 pounds) and ability to absorb hits has drawn early comparisons to another quarterback who wears black and gold, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger.

“It’s pretty cool to be compared to somebody like that,” Stanley said. “Just being able to know that you’re durable and you’ll be able to get up no matter what from a hit.”

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He’s been sacked 22 times this year and took a number of other big hits, but Stanley’s season line is impressive: 188 of 336 passing (56 percent) for 2,338 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz should be excited about the next two years with Stanley at the controls.

“Really does a good job climbing the pocket and has continued to get better in that regard,” Ferentz said. “I think quarterbacks come in all shapes and sizes, but when you’re a (big) guy like that … he’s able to stand tall back there, deliver a lot of balls.

“Athletic ability and the ability to move within the pocket are very different things. I think the growth we’re looking for out of him as he gets older is just learning how to navigate that pocket a little bit better. Continue to extend plays the way he has, and that’ll only help the passing game.”

While Stanley is the younger of Wednesday’s two quarterbacks, he’s certainly more experienced. Boston College will counter with Darius Ward, a redshirt junior making his sixth career start — and third this season after starter Anthony Brown was lost for the season.

Ward is a left-hander who Hawkeye players say can be effective in bootleg rollouts. But his career numbers are nothing to write home about: 79 of 144 (55 percent) for 883 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

Meanwhile, if Stanley can throw two touchdown passes Wednesday he’ll tie Chuck Long’s single-season record of 27 he set in his Heisman Trophy runner-up season of 1985.

“We’re excited about the future with him,” Ferentz said, “but he certainly has a long way to go.”

So very cold

Temperature at kickoff Wednesday is expected to be around 19 degrees, by far the coldest game that Iowa has played in this year. (It was 30 degrees at Wisconsin on Nov. 11.)

Still, you’ll see most of the Hawkeyes wearing short sleeves at Yankee Stadium.

It’s not necessarily a toughness thing for all-American Josey Jewell. He’s thought this subject through.

“Maybe if you get that interception or get that fumble and you’re wearing long sleeves,” Jewell said, “it might slip off of you because you’re not used to the texture.

“I don’t want to screw around with that. Just normal stuff. I don’t want to change anything.”

The Jackson effect

There’s no way of avoiding combat with Jewell, Iowa’s consensus all-American middle linebacker. He’ll be involved in a lot of plays, no matter what plays Boston College offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler calls.

But Loeffler does have control over how much the Eagles throw toward Iowa’s other consensus all-American, cornerback Josh Jackson. The junior had five of his seven interceptions in November, and teams have finally taken notice of his ball-hawking presence.

Purdue, for example, almost exclusively went away from Jackson at Iowa on Nov. 18. Throwing to the cornerback opposite Jackson was the Boilermakers' key to a 24-15 victory.

“Whenever you’re playing that type of player, you’d like to avoid him at all costs, but that’s not football,” Loeffler said. “(Jackson) plays the football extremely well. Very, very impressed with him on tape.”

If Jackson can grab one more interception, he would tie the single-season school record of eight shared three ways by Desmond King (2015), Lou King (1981) and Nile Kinnick (1939).

A special finish?

For two fundamentally sound programs, it should be no surprise that special-teams play is near the top of each team’s keys-to-victory list.

“We don’t have very many bullets on there, but that’s one of them,” BC coach Steve Addazio said. “Obviously creating field position is a huge deal, especially when you want to run the football and play great defense.”

Iowa’s punt game has been problematic all year, and the challenge is compounded Wednesday. The Eagles have one of the top punt returners in the country in junior Michael Walker. His 13.7-yard average (on 26 runbacks) ranks fifth in FBS.

“There are a lot of things on our checklist,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “but the first thing that comes to mind is their return guy.”

Addazio knows all too well this game can come down to a final kick. Boston College lost the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl to Penn State, 31-30, when his kicker missed a PAT in overtime.

BC kicker Colton Lichtenberg is a lackluster 13 of 25 on field goals for his career, including 10 of 17 this season.

Miguel Recinos has fared much better (9 of 11 on field goals) in his first year as Iowa's full-time kicker, but cold weather and expected 10 mph winds will make the kicking game a challenge.

“If you start to freeze up physically, that can affect you psychologically,” Recinos said. “Plus … you do lose a little bit (of distance) the colder it gets.”