AMES, Iowa — C.J. Beathard was a rock star. Ricky Stanzi was a patriot.
Current Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley? He’s too humble to boast and too quiet to admit it anyway. But in his first road start at hostile Jack Trice Stadium, the bookish Clark Kent-type turned into Superman with a performance of the ages against in-state rival Iowa State.
Time after time Saturday, Stanley rallied the Hawkeyes from fourth-quarter and overtime deficits. Ultimately it took his fifth touchdown pass — the fourth-most in Iowa history — to lift the Hawkeyes past the Cyclones 44-41 in overtime.
Stanley performed his tasks methodically, yet spectacularly. Some were Herculean efforts by others, such as a 46-yard catch-and-run for a score by running back Akrum Wadley with 1:09 left in regulation. Stanley threw fades for touchdowns to receivers Matt VandeBerg and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Stanley’s screen pass to Nick Easley was his first scoring pass. Then his last was a 5-yard out route to Smith-Marsette for the game-winner.
Stanley’s expressions didn’t change, whether a play resulted in 6 points or he misfired on a potential score — which he did multiple times. But the sophomore from Menomonie, Wis., kept his composure and in turn kept the Hawkeyes’ record spotless.
“No emotion, just say the play call, calm and get back there,” Iowa center James Daniels said. “We gave him good protection and our receivers got open, the running backs were blocking, so we helped him a lot.”
Legends are born virtually every September when the Hawkeyes and Cyclones tangle. Six years ago, the schools dueled into triple-overtime, and Cyclones quarterback Steele Jantz turned into a superstar during a 44-41 Iowa State win. Five years ago, Cyclones linebacker Jake Knott picked off a pass in the final seconds to preserve a 9-6 win. Four years ago, Iowa running back Mark Weisman carried 35 times in an Iowa victory. Then there’s Beathard in 2015, VandeBerg’s marriage proposal in 2016, Breat “Shaggy” Culbertson’s field goal in 2007, Andy Brodell’s return in 2008, Tyler Sash’s interceptions in 2009.
And on. And on. And on. Stanley — and Wadley — are part of Cy-Hawk lore now and forever.
For the month of August at Iowa’s practice facility, reporters pressed Stanley’s teammates about the quarterback’s low-key demeanor. With Stanley’s disposition, we asked, can he lead effectively? In training camp, Stanley competed against more vocal and experienced junior Tyler Wiegers for the starting position. With 5 days to go before the opener, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced Stanley was his guy.
The young Stanley visibly was nervous during interviews, and that spilled over to his action last week against Wyoming. But once Stanley settled in, he produced a workmanlike performance in an opening-day victory.
But home at Kinnick Stadium against a Mountain West team is not Jack Trice against the Cyclones. It’s hostile and vicious in Ames. But if emotions were boiling among the sold-out crowd of 61,500 or the players on both sidelines, Stanley was chill.
“He showed all of us his maturity,” Iowa guard Sean Welsh said. “He had every excuse to use his age or his inexperience to come up for any shortfalls. But what he does a great job of is — he’s just robotic in his approach and his operation. He can throw a pick and it wouldn’t affect the next series for him. He’s always thinking about the next play.”
Stanley didn’t throw a pick on Saturday, but he had a few passes he’d want back. He finished 27 of 41 for 333 yards and 5 touchdowns. He was sacked only once. Since a forgettable first quarter against Wyoming, Stanley is 35 of 52 (67.3 percent) for 458 yards, 8 touchdowns and no interceptions.
He’s a sophomore who didn’t redshirt last year. He’s a quarterback nobody was sure could lead. Now, he’s a player who can go into the toughest environments and pull out a victory.
“This is only his second game, so the sky’s the limit for Nate,” Wadley said. “He led, even when we were down, he picked us up and he kept moving forward. Even if he got sacked, even if he got hit after he was throwing. I don’t think he threw any interceptions — even if he would have — he would have kept his composure. You wouldn’t have seen no type of negative demeanor. That’s what I like about Stanley. He’s a leader.”
Four different times Stanley took over at his 11-yard line or worse. Every time he led the Hawkeyes to a touchdown. The first time was midway through the second quarter. Iowa took over at its 9. Stanley threw checkdowns and screens. Then he completed a 17-yard fade to VandeBerg to put Iowa ahead 14-10.
In the third quarter, Stanley took over at his 6. He was 4 of 5 for 76 yards. On third and 15 from the Iowa State 42, Stanley found tight end T.J. Hockenson in the middle of the field for 24 yards. Two plays later, Stanley hit Hockenson again for 17.
With the Hawkeyes trailing 31-21 with 11:41 left in the game, Iowa took possession at its 8. Stanley again went 4 for 5 on an 11-play drive. He connected with four receivers, including an outstretched Smith-Marsette near the back of the end zone for a score.
Then down 38-31 with 3:01 remaining, Iowa took over at its 11. Stanley connected on 4 of 5 passes, including a 46-yard dump pass to Wadley that turned into one of Iowa’s greatest plays in Cy-Hawk history. Wadley knotted the score at 38-38 and sent the game into overtime.
After Iowa State scored a field goal, Iowa had a chance to win with a touchdown. Stanley converted a third-and-4 with a 10-yard pass to Easley. Facing second-and-goal at the 5, Stanley tossed to Smith-Marsette on an out route at the goal line to send the Hawkeyes into a frenzy.
Five touchdown passes for Stanley in his second career start. True, he misfired on a couple of deep passes that could have produced touchdowns. But maybe the quiet, potential liability at quarterback really is a strength for the Hawkeyes.
“Last week, you probably noticed, he looked pretty tight at times,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “For him to play the way that he played in this environment says a lot. I had a flashback of C.J. Beathard two years ago making some really big plays for us here. You come out of that game thinking this guy’s got something to him.”