IOWA CITY, Iowa — Nate Stanley’s progress is a lot like a stock in a bull market. The trend is up.
The early returns on Stanley are better than anyone expected. Coach Kirk Ferentz wasn’t sure in preseason how the sophomore quarterback would fare.
“I don’t know what we expected, quite frankly,” Ferentz said last Saturday. “We just expected him to play as well as he can. I think he’s done a good job. He’s improved. That’s the biggest thing.”
Come Saturday, if Iowa is to pull off an upset of Penn State as it did in 2008, the Hawkeyes need Stanley to not just continue on his trajectory. They need his best performance yet.
An offensive counter to Penn State’s offense
The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions are an offensive juggernaut. They go for the kill nearly every series, and big plays follow. Penn State has averaged 44.6 points per game over its last 10 games.
Iowa isn’t going to stop quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki. Holding them to 30 points or less is a win.
“You’re always on edge, period,” Ferentz said, “because basically any one of those guys can make a play that can hurt you. So you just have to be at your absolute best every snap of the ballgame.”
It applies to more than the defense.
Iowa will need to score beat Penn State. This won’t be the 6-4 game from 2004. The offense must show up, and the Hawkeyes must find the end zone.
That’s where Stanley comes in. His early success needs to be the beginning of a larger rally come Saturday at Kinnick Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Iowa dispatched North Texas by becoming a one-dimensional offense, running the ball and eating up clock. It led to three second-half touchdowns in the 31-14 victory.
The Hawkeyes might look to do something similar here.
“We would like to be able to establish the run game and be able to hold the ball,” Stanley said. “Obviously, they have a pretty high-powered offense. If we can keep guys like Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley off the field, it will be a pretty big advantage for us.”
Iowa needs more than a steady dose of running back Akrum Wadley to win. It needs offensive balance and touchdowns. Again, that’s where Stanley comes in.
The importance of comfort
Stanley’s initial public offering was low following an offseason in which he struggled to separate from Tyler Wiegers in the quarterback competition.
But his returns were positive from the season opener against Wyoming. Stanley’s play has only grown from there. He completed 61.4 percent of his passes and threw for 655 yards, 10 touchdowns and 1 interception in the first three games.
Most importantly, Stanley answered questions about his ability to make plays when forced to do so. He helped the Hawkeyes overcome a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in an overtime win at Iowa State on Sept. 9.
“Just being more comfortable on the field I think is the biggest thing,” Stanley said.
The more relaxed Stanley is, the better he plays. There was no magic moment where it all came together. It slowly built up and his teammates noticed. It shows in his decision-making.
“He is a lot more comfortable in the huddle and leading,” tight end Noah Fant said. “A lot more comfortable with the different checks and audibles he makes on the field. It’s really good to see and encouraging.”
The result is Stanley performing like a blue-chip stock. He is dependable and looks like a core holding. He consistently makes good decisions, finds open receivers and doesn’t force throws.
The biggest surprise might be his impact in finding the end zone. Iowa has 13 touchdowns. Stanley is responsible for 76.9 percent of them.
They’re not all short screens inside the 10-yard line. Four of his touchdown passes are of at least 20 yards. He is displaying a knack for putting the football where only his receiver can get it in the end zone. Iowa trusts his ability to finish drives.
“We’re pleased with Nate’s progress,” Ferentz said. “We’ll never be satisfied. He can always get better. He’s doing a lot of good things, though.”
Stanley can improve his deep passing, especially away from the end zone. His footwork is still a work in progress. There is volatility in his game. Ball security is an issue, and if it pops up against the Nittany Lions, it will be hard for the Hawkeyes to win.
Why Iowa needs Nate Stanley to put everything together
Iowa needs touchdowns to beat Penn State. It can’t settle for field goals and needs Stanley to generate touchdown drives. It’s going to be impossible for the Hawkeyes to match the Nittany Lions without a top-shelf Stanley performance.
“The improvement he’s made is encouraging for us,” Ferentz said, “and there are a couple of bumps coming. We all know that, but he’s done some impressive things so far.”
Sophomore starting quarterbacks struggle. It’s going to happen with Stanley.
But it can’t occur against Penn State. The bull market must continue.
If it does, the biggest dividend yet pays out on Saturday night.