Iowa's Nate Stanley, Penn State's Trace McSorley hold their teams' fates in their hands

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Nate Stanley has won 14 games as Iowa’s starting quarterback, but never one like this — against a ranked team on the road.

These are the games that can define careers at the most scrutinized position in team sports. The No. 18 Hawkeyes at No. 16 Penn State, with 106,000 fans in the stands, a persistent rain in the forecast and a great quarterback on the opposing sideline.

Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley looks to pass during the third quarter on Oct. 20, 2018, against the Maryland Terrapins at Kinnick Stadium.

“A lot of quarterbacks play good against the teams you’re supposed to beat. The separator as to whether you’re great or not is how you play against the better opponents. The defense is playing so well right now that if (Stanley) just makes the five crucial plays that these games often come down to, Iowa should win,” said Big Ten Network analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Stanley Jackson.

“At the end of this weekend, we’re going to ask ourselves, did he make those five plays?”

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Nate Stanley and Trace McSorley will never be on the Beaver Stadium field at the same time when Saturday’s game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. (ESPN), but the quarterbacks’ fingerprints will be all over the outcome. McSorley, a senior, is one of college football’s proven winners, with 27 of them, two shy of the Nittany Lions’ record for a quarterback.

Stanley, a junior who has thrown for 10 touchdowns in the Hawkeyes’ two road wins this season, has yet to beat a ranked team away from Kinnick. This is his chance to raise his profile.

There is no shortage of football observers who think that’s precisely what Stanley will do.

“The quarterback has to drive the team, and I think that’s what he’s done,” former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL Draft guru Gil Brandt said of Stanley.

“I thought last year that he was a very good quarterback, with all the size (6-foot-4, 242 pounds) and talent. He keeps proving me right every game.”

A contrast in styles, but not results, in two top-flight quarterbacks

McSorley, at 6-foot, 203 pounds, has long been considered too small to do what he’s doing. He has passed for 8,830 yards in his Penn State career, the most in program history. He pulled out a memorable last-second 21-19 win last September at Iowa. He is the last guy an opposing defense wants to see with the game on the line.

But McSorley has been forced to be virtually the entire Penn State offense in his final season. Gone are star running back Saquon Barkley (New York Giants), tight end Mike Gesicki (Miami Dolphins) and wide receiver DaeSsean Hamilton (Denver Broncos). In their place are an untested group of receivers who have combined to drop 23 passes, the worst mark in the nation.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley celebrates one of his eight rushing touchdowns this season, this one last Saturday in a win at Indiana. The senior has been relying more on his legs now that his receivers lead the nation with 23 dropped passes.

So McSorley’s completion percentage is down markedly this year, to 54 percent. He’s keeping the ball in his own hands more, running 98 times for 554 yards and eight touchdowns.

“That team rises and falls with him. He’s got to perform well in virtually every big game for them to win,” said Josh Liskiewitz, the Big Ten Conference analyst for Pro Football Focus.

“I think (running) is his best trait. He’s not a guy who’s going to consistently hit tight windows with velocity. They’ve always been about scheming matchup problems and they don’t have the same matchup advantages that they’ve had in the past right now.”

Liskiewitz noted that McSorley is particularly struggling with deep passes. He is just 13-for-38 on attempts that travel 20 yards or more, with four touchdowns.

But what McSorley does better than any quarterback in the Big Ten is improvise when plays break down. He can complete passes on the run that most quarterbacks wouldn’t dare attempt.

“He doesn’t force anything. He’s got this confidence about him that, ‘Hey, I’ll get us out of this jam with my legs,’” said Chuck Long, a former star quarterback at Iowa who now works as a Big Ten analyst.

That puts the pressure on Iowa’s front four. You can’t fixate on getting sacks against McSorley, Long said. You simply need to keep him contained and force him to make accurate throws while standing still.

“Even if I’m getting blocked, I have to stay right here,” Long said, mimicking what a defensive lineman must think. “If I do the wrong swim move or I do the wrong inside move to escape my guy, outside of the framework of my assignment, that little thing right there, all of the sudden McSorley’s out the back door and he’s hurting you on the ground.”

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McSorley’s quarterback rating when under pressure this year is an impressive 79.2, said Liskiewitz (PFF uses the NFL system for rating QBs).

Stanley, by contrast, is at 48.5 in those situations. It’s an area where the junior needs to grow. He has excelled when given a clean pocket, however. His rating is 116.8 in those situations.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has made great strides this season in identifying and exploiting blitzing opponents. Here, he calls out the coverage before taking a snap from center Keegan Render in last Saturday's win over Maryland.

Even more interesting, though, is that Stanley’s rating is 128.9 when opponents blitz him. That’s because he has become so smart about his film study that he sees those situations before they happen.

“He’s getting it out to his weapons. He’s really been able to exploit blitzes,” Liskiewitz said. “So you’ve got to get pressure on him, and you’ve got to do it with your base pass rush.”

Stanley gaining trust of his coaches

Stanley threw 26 touchdown passes as a sophomore, his first year as the starter. It was a strong debut, highlighted by a five-touchdown scorching of Ohio State at Kinnick Stadium.

But Stanley threw just four more scoring passes after that game. The Hawkeyes went 2-2 in those contests. It left some observers wondering who the real Stanley is.

“I liked him in flashes last year and then I was disappointed. I thought he shrunk down the stretch. I thought they needed him to be elite and he wasn’t in those games,” Jackson said.

Stanley started slowly this year, but has been terrific in recent weeks as the Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) have reeled off three consecutive wins.

Iowa coaches have put more trust in their quarterback, green-lighting him for 71 passes in back-to-back wins at Minnesota and Indiana. Stanley expects to see that continue.

“You’ve got these tough games. You’re still in the West division fight. They’re going to let him throw,” Jackson said.

“He’s had some games where he’s the reason why Iowa was able to win. I think Iowa’s in great position.”

Will the NFL come calling?

Opinions are divided on whether McSorley’s considerable skills will translate to NFL success. He is likely to be drafted based on all the wins he accumulated in college. No one questions his moxie.

But Jackson and Liskiewitz both wonder about his arm strength and accuracy.

“It doesn’t take anything away from what he’s done in college football. He’s been an unbelievable quarterback. He makes that system run,” Jackson said.

As for Stanley, his size, powerful arm and ability to stay on his feet while defensive players bounce off of him all bode well. Whether after this year or next, he’s a near-certain NFL pick, possibly in the first or second round.

“Nate has a better opportunity to play on Sundays,” Jackson said.

“I think he’s displaying some elite accuracy at times right now. But his toughness, too. He’s hard to bring down. He’s got a little Ben Roethlisberger in him.”

Brandt was even more blunt.

“If they were both seniors,” the veteran NFL talent observer said, “I would go with the guy from Iowa.”

No. 18 IOWA (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) at No. 16 PENN STATE (5-2, 2-2)

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.

TV: ESPN (Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Todd McShay)

Line: Nittany Lions by 6 1/2

Weather: Rain and chilly, with temperatures in the mid-40s; winds from north/northwest at 5 mph