Is Iowa becoming a passing team? Nate Stanley's recent stats suggest that may be case

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Nate Stanley gets a grade sheet after each game he plays as Iowa’s quarterback.

It comes courtesy of his position coach, Ken O’Keefe, and analyzes each play the Hawkeye junior made. The last three games, it’s revealed marked improvement in statistics like completion percentage and yards per pass attempt.

That’s all well and good, Stanley said this week, but he focuses on something that’s harder to grasp.

“If you’re not making good mental decisions, that’s more indicative of a poor performance than maybe just a bad completion percentage,” Stanley said. “I think mental mistakes stick out more in my mind than the physical mistakes.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley fires a pass against Wisconsin on Sept. 22. The junior has put together an impressive three-game stretch of play and is looking to build on that Saturday at Indiana.

“Physical mistakes are going to happen. You’re never going to be 100 percent on everything. But you can be 100 percent on the mental decisions that you make.”

Stanley will put that notion to the test again at 11 a.m. Saturday, when his Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) visit Indiana (4-2, 1-2).

It will be a resurgent Iowa passing attack taking the field against a Hoosier defense that is allowing 212 yards per game through the air to rank sixth in the Big Ten. Indiana has come up with seven interceptions. Stanley has thrown four, including one late in the first half at Minnesota last Saturday that was among the poorest decisions he’s ever made on a football field. He didn’t need a grade sheet to know that.

“It was just a bad play in general. I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for it,” Stanley said of that pick, which led to a Gophers touchdown in a game Iowa won 48-31.

But the good has far outweighed the bad for Stanley lately.

For example:

  • In his past three games — against Northern Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota — Stanley has completed 60 of 90 passes for 879 yards and eight touchdowns.
  • That’s a completion percentage of 66.7, well above the 55.8 mark Stanley posted last year.
  • It’s an average gain of 9.8 yards per attempt. Stanley averaged 6.9 yards on his 351 passes a year ago.

Perhaps it’s a small sample size and we’ll look back at this as just a terrific stretch in Stanley’s career.

Or maybe it’s the beginning of a new era in the Iowa offense, one distinguished by much more reliance on the pass than the run.

“It depends on the team that we’re playing and the game plan that we have in place,” Stanley said, not wanting to give away too much. “Whatever coach Brian (Ferentz) feels is the best thing to do, we’re going to go out there and do it to the best of our abilities.

“There’s things we try to take advantage of each week.”

Last week, Minnesota did commit the bulk of its defense to stopping Iowa’s running game. The Hawkeyes picked up a mere 106 yards on 40 carries, none longer than 15 yards.

So Stanley took to the air. When he did, he looked farther downfield than he has in the past. This is what second-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz likes to see.

Stanley’s 23 completions included big-chunk gains of 60 yards to wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, 30 to tight end T.J. Hockenson, 26 to wide receiver Brandon Smith and 21 to wideout Nick Easley. Stanley’s 314 passing yards marked his third career game eclipsing the 300 mark. Two have come in the past three games.

“It would be really good if we could eliminate some of our turnovers,” Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz said of Stanley’s interception and a later fumble against the Gophers. “Either of those plays could rattle your cage a little bit, and he just kind of just kept playing. I'm sure it affected him, but his demeanor was not affected. That's important, too. He's the quarterback, so we don't want him to be out there trembling.”

Stanley, in his second season as the Hawkeye starter, certainly doesn’t tremble. He spent the summer working hard on his footwork, seeing that as the key to more accurate passing.

It’s paying off.

“His ability to find you late or his ability to get you the ball whenever it’s a crucial moment,” Smith-Marsette said, when asked how Stanley had improved from last year. “He’s never the type to put you in a position to fail.”

It’s helped that Stanley has had strong protection from his offensive line. He’s been sacked only five times this season. He’s also more adept at buying time in the pocket.

That was evident on his 60-yard touchdown strike to Smith-Marsette, a play that saw Stanley race forward nearly to the line of scrimmage before spotting his open receiver along the sideline.

Smith-Marsette, a sophomore, is averaging 20.9 yards on his 10 catches this season. That’s double what he averaged a year ago.

It’s a possible sign of where the Iowa offense is headed.

“When they recruited me, they were just telling me, ‘You could find yourself a place in this offense. New offensive coordinator. We’re going to have a lot of play-action stuff,’” said Smith-Marsette, a native of New Jersey.

“It’s a big-time running school so teams are going to stack the box to prevent us from running. And when they do that, they leave me one-on-one or possibly in coverage with my speed and my ability to get past defenders. So it’s like pick your poison.”

Stanley is the one dispensing the poison. And he’s been very good at it. His grade sheets reflect that.

IOWA (4-1, 1-1) AT INDIANA (4-2, 1-2)

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Ind.

TV: ESPN2 (Beth Mowins, Anthony Becht, Rocky Boiman)

Weather: 56 degrees and sunny; winds from southwest at 4 mph

Line: Hawkeyes by 5½