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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley describes how defenses are game-planning for the Hawkeyes, and what the offense must do to respond Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The starting quarterback of a football team on a three-game losing streak is always going to feel the heat.

For Iowa’s Nate Stanley, this is uncharted territory, the first prolonged skid of his two-year stint under center.

He told reporters Tuesday that he puts the pressure on himself to get things righted when Iowa (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) travels to Illinois for what should be a comfortable victory. The Hawkeyes are 16-point favorites over the Fighting Illini (4-6, 2-5) and have won four consecutive games in the series by a combined 83 points.

Nothing is comfortable right now for Stanley and the Hawkeyes, however.

“Just making sure that I stay positive and help my teammates out as much as I can,” Stanley responded when asked about the biggest test of his leadership so far.

“There’s always room to do more. You can always put in more time. You can always prepare better.”

Iowa is coming off a 14-10 loss to Northwestern, a game in which the Hawkeyes couldn’t establish anything on the ground and kept finding themselves “behind the 8 ball,” in Stanley’s words. Iowa converted only 3-of-13 third downs, with an average distance to gain of eight yards. The lone touchdown drive consisted of two plays, both Stanley passes to wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

There wasn’t much else positive to talk about.

“They blitzed pretty much every first down, blitzed pretty much every time they thought we were going to run the ball. So we had to get the ball out quick or do some quick throws to receivers,” Stanley said of the Wildcats’ defense, which held Iowa to 64 yards on 22 carries, with a long run of 11.

Stanley did connect on a 36-yard pass to Smith-Marsette, plus the 28-yard touchdown. He found tight end T.J. Hockenson for a 37-yarder in the first half. His overall numbers were 27-of-41 for 269 yards, with no interceptions for a second consecutive game. It was a fairly pedestrian outing, and certainly not explosive enough to beat good teams in the Big Ten.

But the Hawkeyes’ final two games are not against good teams. Illinois and Nebraska (the Nov. 23 opponent in the regular-season finale) have the two worst defenses in the league. The Illini have the dubious distinction of ranking 14th against both the pass (285 yards per game) and the run (248).

Stanley said it’s possible the Illini will take a page out of Northwestern’s playbook.

“It doesn’t really matter what the defense does. It just matters about our execution and how we handle those,” he said.

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Success will mean getting through his progression of receiving options quicker to try to find the open guy. It means better placement of the football to allow not only a catch, but for the receiver to run with the ball afterward. And it means recognizing what the defense is trying to take away and checking into an alternate play at the line of scrimmage if necessary.

Stanley acknowledged the need to get better in all of those areas as the junior prepares for his 24th career start.

Stanley did not want to talk about the thumb injury on his throwing hand that he suffered three weeks ago in a loss at Penn State.

“I’m not going to talk about my hand at all right now,” he said when the subject was raised.

Stanley didn’t want to talk about the hot-button issue of the week, either — the lack of playing time for star tight end Noah Fant. The two have connected on 17 touchdown passes the past two seasons. Fant had a single catch Saturday for zero yards and was barely on the field in the second half.

“It’s not my place to question who’s in the game, who’s not in the game,” Stanley said. “As far as hearing people say, ‘Oh, you should throw it to him more; you should do this and that.’ The defense really ultimately tells us where to throw the ball. You can gameplan it as much as you want. You can isolate on a certain person. But when the ball is snapped, whatever the defense does, we have to react to it. We have to play off of what they do.

"And sometimes they can take away a certain person.”

But they can’t take away the quarterback. Stanley knows that, however this season plays out over the final three games, he’ll be the biggest reason why.

“I’m really just excited to finish up this week of practice and go out there and compete again and get back on the right track,” he said.

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