IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nick Easley caught six passes in the first half of Iowa’s win over Northern Iowa on Saturday. Five of them picked up first downs.
There were many reasons why the Hawkeye offense was humming like it hadn’t been before this season, but don’t overlook the role of the senior wide receiver. And there’s no doubt that Easley is easy to overlook at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds.
Easley hadn’t looked like himself in Iowa’s first two games, both victories that were largely due to excellent defensive play. He had just one catch to show for them, and coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged what Easley wouldn’t: that the team’s leading returning receiver (51 catches) was dealing with a minor injury.
On Saturday, Easley turned an early screen pass into a 12-yard gain. That first down allowed the Hawkeye offense to start playing with some tempo. Before long, it had moved 92 yards for a touchdown in its best drive to date.
“If we get the look we want and we execute it, we can pick up 10, 15 yards, and that just gets us going,” Easley said of the wide receiver screen play (he later had a 13-yard gain on one). “It gets everyone in a rhythm and makes the defense change what they’re doing. And then we’re able to get some shots downfield as well. It sets everything up, and more than anything, it just gives us confidence.”
Easley and Co. will try to take that confidence into this Saturday’s contest against a much stouter opponent, No. 16 Wisconsin. Kickoff on Fox is at 7:30 p.m. This is a high-stakes challenge for an offense that put up only 66 yards against the Badgers a year ago and suffered a 38-14 loss that still stings.
This Wisconsin defense might not have quite the bite that last year’s did. But Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley knows he’ll need to be much sharper than he was in Madison last November. Easley, coming off a career-high 10-catch outing, can certainly help.
“It’s going to be a great game if we can get our fans into it early,” Stanley said, anticipating the atmosphere in what will be the latest kickoff in Kinnick Stadium history. “(I) just (need to) make sure that we get into the right plays at the right times. And then, too, when they give us the opportunity to make a big play, whether it be making a throw or checking into a play, just make those plays. You have to capitalize on those.”
Iowa (3-0) has lost five of its past six meetings with Wisconsin (2-1). The Badgers have been ranked in each of those games. The Hawkeye offense hasn’t done much to speak of in the past three.
MORE IOWA-WISCONSIN COVERAGE
- Hawkeyes reveling in major Big Ten opportunity
- Kelly-Martin, Smith-Marsette nearing return
- Ferentz on rivalry: 'We know who they are. They know who we are.'
Ferentz has a keen appreciation for the Badger defense.
“They have a certain temperament they play with. They're a team that plays with excellent technique. They're rarely out-of-place. They work hard to the ball,” he said.
“We clearly failed the test last year. We couldn't sustain anything.”
Easley had two catches for 19 yards in that game. And that was one of the better showings by a Hawkeyes skill player. He’s eager to make a bigger dent in the Wisconsin defense this year. And that likely means going over the middle, where the Badgers typically employ four linebackers looking to punish slot receivers such as Easley.
“You’ve just got to learn to accept that it’s part of the game. You’re going to get tagged,” said Easley, who absorbed one heavy hit in the first quarter Saturday and immediately responded with a first-down catch. “Once you get over that and it doesn’t bug you anymore, you just play ball.”
Easley learned to excel in the slot in his two seasons at Iowa Western Community College. He was an all-American as a sophomore, when he gained 954 yards.
Stanley doesn’t hesitate to rely on his most experienced receiver in any situation. The two connected for 103 yards and a second-half touchdown Saturday.
“The coverages that they were giving us really allowed us to isolate him one-on-one with some guys, and he did a great job making some plays for us,” Stanley said of Easley.
Still, even Stanley cringes sometimes when he sees his receiver about to get clobbered in the middle of the field. He tries to place the ball where Easley can catch it while shielding himself from a big hit. But it doesn’t always work that way.
“He trains super hard, does everything he can to make sure he’s physically ready to play. I think that shows in his ability to take those hits and keep on moving,” Stanley said.
“Sometimes, you throw the ball and you’re like ‘Oh, man, why did I throw that one?’ But that’s something about studying the tape and making the right decisions is you won’t put somebody in that position, or you’ll get better about not running somebody into a hit. … You don’t want any of your friends to get hit that way, but unfortunately it’s part of the game.”
Easley understands. He even joked that growing up with older brother Matt helped prepare him for anything opposing defenders can throw at him. Plus, he knows his role as a senior wide receiver is to keep drives alive. Especially this week.
“As a receiver, we want to move the sticks on third down,” Easley said. “It’s kind of a time where we’re able to shine.
“And those plays can swing momentum and swing a game for us.”