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Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley was encouraged by the performance of his offense Saturday, but says much work remains. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

 

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s hard to imagine three football players with more disparate skill sets than Noah Fant, Nick Easley and Brady Ross.

But they all put their skills on display Saturday as Iowa rolled over Northern Iowa 38-14 at Kinnick Stadium.

Add Mekhi Sargent, Max Cooper and Kyle Groeneweg to the list. Heck, throw in Brandon Smith, T.J. Hockenson and Toren Young.

This was a night for the “skill” players to shine for Iowa. After two weeks of grudgingly answering questions about all that was wrong with the offense, they toyed with an overmatched Panthers defense while running 50 first-half plays, with 11 different Hawkeyes carrying or catching the ball.

Iowa gained 316 yards in the half and led 21-0, more than enough to secure victory, the way its defense is playing these days.

That makes the Hawkeyes 3-0 on the season, with Wisconsin on deck.

And they did it with two of their most dynamic offensive players — running back Ivory Kelly-Martin and wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette — sitting this one out while nursing injuries.

Junior quarterback Nate Stanley was the maestro of all this offensive excellence. He typically found plenty of time to throw, thanks to an offensive line that easily won the battles up front. And he frequently had open targets, thanks to a Panthers defense that was a step or two slow all game.

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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley discusses the contributions of his wide receiver Nick Easley and looks forward to next week's game vs. Wisconsin Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

 

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had noted earlier in the week that he felt that his quarterback was "pressing," trying to aim the ball instead of letting his instincts take control.

Stanley agreed with that assessment, saying: "He has a really good sense of what everybody is feeling out there on the field. I think he's been around a lot of great players and knows when they're trying to do much. So maybe, yeah, trying to do more than I should and not allowing myself to have fun out on the field. That's one of the things that he talked to me a lot about this week is really just go out there and just be you."

Message received.

Stanley went 23-for-28 for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

LEISTIKOW: Iowa checks the needed boxes ahead of Wisconsin showdown

In the first quarter, it was Noah Fant who was seemingly always in the clear. The 6-foot-5 tight end went out early after taking a hit to his ribs. When he returned, it was to wreak havoc.

Stanley found Fant for a 43-yard bomb down the left sideline to Northern Iowa’s 8-yard line. Two plays later, Fant leaked off the line of scrimmage and into the right flat and caught a 5-yard touchdown pass that was the 14th of his career, a record for Hawkeye tight ends.

The next drive included back-to-back passes to Fant that gained 48 yards. He had five catches for 99 yards in the opening 15 minutes and then spent the rest of the game as a decoy. It was almost as if the Hawkeyes wanted to see what else was in the arsenal. So they found out.

Easley, who entered the game with one catch on the season, said this week that he wasn’t concerned about statistics. Then he piled up a whole bunch of them. His 10 catches Saturday were a career high.

It started with a 12-yard screen pass on Iowa’s second possession, which ended up being its first first-half touchdown of the season.

Easley took a hard hit on an incomplete pass over the middle moments later. Instead of jogging to the sideline, he stayed in the game and caught a 7-yard pass to convert a third down. That’s tough. That’s what you expect from your senior who is the leader of the wide receiver group.

"It's just part of the game, part of being a slot receiver, kind of working that middle area. There's some big dudes out there. So you're going to take some shots every once in a while," Easley said.

In the second half, Easley caught a 14-yard touchdown pass on a play that was as perfectly executed as you’ll ever see.

Iowa converted three fourth-and-short situations in the first half. One was a pass to Fant. Another was a quarterback keeper by Stanley.

Then, there was the Brady Ross somersault up the middle for a 3-yard gain on fourth-and-1 that had the hearty approval of the sellout crowd. The fullback later caught a 10-yard pass to pick up another first down. That drive resulted in a Sargent touchdown run, his second of the game.

Running back Toren Young also ran for a score in the second half. Kelly-Martin, who started Iowa’s season opener before missing the past two weeks with an ankle injury, was not needed on this day.

Hawkeye offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz even showed a couple of wrinkles to get the ball into the hands of backup wide receivers Cooper and Groeneweg.

Groeneweg went into motion to the left, reversed course back to the right and took a handoff from Stanley, bursting 11 yards around end. Cooper stepped behind the line of scrimmage to grab a quick screen pass from Stanley, plowing upfield for 7yards.

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Smith-Marsette, Iowa’s leading wide receiver through two games, was not needed on this day, either. But he will be.

Yes, this all came against an Football Championship Subdivision opponent that a Power Five team such as Iowa should dominate. But the Panthers typically play close games against Iowa. This was anything but. And that has to be encouraging for the Hawkeye offense as Big Ten Conference play begins next Saturday.

Iowa has scored one offensive touchdown in its past three meetings with Wisconsin. Last year, the Hawkeyes put up only 66 yards against the Badgers.

They will undoubtedly be reminded of all that again this week. They will grudgingly answer the questions again.

The Hawkeyes had the answer, and then some, against the Panthers. But no one will care if they don’t sustain this against the better teams that are awaiting them.

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