IOWA CITY – Perhaps the biggest question entering the 2017 Iowa Football season was who would replace the graduating C.J. Beathard at quarterback.
Less than a week before the home opener against Wyoming, that question was answered. Head Coach Kirk Ferentz announced that Nate Stanley would be the guy to get the first chance.
Since then, we’ve been treated to the promising highs and the disappointing lows of a new sophomore quarterback. Despite some glaring mistakes, Stanley has guided the Hawkeyes to a 3-0 record and is one of the best (statistical) quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
Let’s look through, game by game, how Stanley performed in non-conference play.
Game 1 vs Wyoming: W 24-3
8-for-15, 125 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, QBR: 39.9
In his first start, Stanley took a while to get settled in. After staring 0-4 with an interception, he completed eight of his next 11 passes and threw for three touchdowns.
The numbers don’t jump off the page because he only threw 15 times, compared to 41 rushing attempts from the Iowa offense. The offense relied very little on Stanley’s arm in game one, which gave him a chance to settle in and not feel too much pressure to perform. He can thank Akrum Wadley and James Butler for leading the ground attack.
Stanley also lost a pair of fumbles in the game after holding onto the ball too long and not throwing balls away. Game one was for learning. Stanley learned some lessons the hard way, but he learned them nonetheless.
Game 2 @ Iowa State: W 44-41 (OT)
27-for-41, 333 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, QBR: 83.6
First true road start against a rising in-state rival could have been a recipe for disaster (and it nearly was for Iowa fans), but Stanley kept his head on straight.
“He looked a lot more comfortable out there,” Ferentz said. “He made some beautiful throws.”
Some throws were good, but some were not as good. On at least four occasions in the game, Stanley overthrew wide-open receivers who had glided through the Cyclone secondary. Had he connected on just one or two, the game would have likely been over before overtime.
“You get that done in practice, and we missed them in practice too,” Ferentz said. “There is usually a correlation. We’ll keep throwing them. At some point we hope to bring them in.”
Missed throws or not, Stanley led his team to victory in enemy territory. The Hawkeyes marched down the field for four touchdowns drives of 89 or more yards and used Stanley’s five touchdown passes to top Iowa State. Stanley’s performance earned him Co-Offensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten.
Game 3 vs North Texas: W 31-14
16-for-27, 197 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, QBR: 62.6
Stanley’s week three performance was the ultimate culmination of the good and the bad. His eleven misfires included some more overthrows on deep balls – plus one underthrow to Ihmir Smith-Marsette – but he also stayed calm, which is his staple.
“I think he’s done a good job,” Ferentz said. “He’s improved. That’s the biggest thing.”
While not his best game, Stanley did make big plays when needed. On the day, the Hawkeyes were successful on four out of five fourth-down conversions, with two conversions coming on Stanley completions to Noah Fant.
Stanley also completed five passes on eight third down attempts – one of the non-conversions led to a fourth-down TD pass to Fant – and connected with six different receivers in the game.
The North Texas game wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t ugly either. At the end of it, Stanley got a win and guided his team to a 3-0 record.
To put a letter grade on it, Stanley has earned a solid “B.” After all, he is 3-0 in his first three career starts, and he has already been named a Co-Offensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten. On top of that, his 10 touchdowns in three games is the best stretch for an Iowa quarterback in the Kirk Ferentz era and leads the Big Ten. Not bad for the quarterback of a run-first offense.
On the flip side, there is the glaring issue of missed shots down the field. The overthrows at Iowa State could have been the difference in the game. Fortunately for Stanley, the Hawkeyes still left Ames with the win. Had they lost the fan reaction to those overthrows would have been a bit different. When it comes to those overthrows it appears that his composure in the pocket is good, his footwork is solid, and he clearly has the arm strength to make the play, they just haven’t fallen. In fact, his arm strength may be the issue. It’s likely one of those situations where he doesn’t want to underthrow and risk the interception so he ends up putting a little too much on each pass. He just needs to find the happy medium. Hawkeye fans hope that type of touch will come with experience.
The team can live with overthrows on gutsy down field shots, but missing short yardage passes is crippling. Stanley hasn’t done that since the first quarter of his first game.
Conference play will give us a much better idea of how good Nate Stanley really is, but so far, he’s off to a solid start. The game against Penn State on Saturday will be his next test.