IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa didn’t really know what it had in sophomore Nate Stanley when it named him its new starting quarterback in August.
The verdict is in.
The kid is a star.
Stanley’s coming out party came last weekend, when he threw five touchdown passes in a stunning 55-24 rout of then-No. 3 Ohio State. It was the second five-touchdown performance of the season for Stanley, and it helped the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) reach the Top 25 for the first time this season.
Stanley, who has thrown 12 TD passes without a pick in four games against ranked teams in this week’s Top 25 , will face yet another ranked foe when the Hawkeyes travel to his native Wisconsin to face the sixth-ranked Badgers (9-0, 6-0) on Saturday.
“He’s really knowledgeable about the offense. He does a great job of putting ourselves in position to make plays, and also being really smart with the ball,” Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley said. “He’s extremely composed. When things are going badly he doesn’t get rattled.”
Iowa had always thought highly of Stanley, choosing against a redshirt for him last season even though he threw just nine passes while backing up the durable C.J. Beathard.
Stanley, a self-described introvert who taught himself how to play the position in part by watching drills on YouTube while in high school, has become arguably Iowa’s most indispensable player.
“I’ve been most impressed with how he handles the bumps,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s made some really big plays for us already, so it’s impressive. He’s shown his mettle and his toughness, too.”
The 6-foot-5 Stanley rallied from a sluggish start to throw three TD passes in his first career start, a 24-3 win over Wyoming in the opener. He then tossed five touchdown passes in a 44-41 win at Iowa State that looks better for Stanley and the Hawkeyes in retrospect given how strong the Cyclones’ defense has proven to be.
Iowa’s offense stumbled at times after that, in part because the Hawkeyes were leaning on a pair of freshmen to replace their senior tackles, and partly because Stanley struggled to connect on some deep routes.
But Stanley improved at protecting the ball after a shaky debut, and the development of young tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson — who combined to catch four TD passes against the Buckeyes — has bolstered Iowa’s passing game.
“Learning how to prepare smarter and better, from that standpoint I continue to get better every week,” Stanley said. “My decision making has gotten quicker and better.”
Stanley now has 22 touchdown passes against four interceptions, and his teammates have taken notice.
Nationally, only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett have a higher TD-to-INT ratio while throwing for at least 20 TDs.
“He’s getting to the point where he’s facilitating and putting balls on the money and a whole bunch of different stuff that you don’t see very often,” Fant said. “The sky is the limit for that guy, especially with how strong his arm is and how far he can throw the ball and just the way he reads the defense is pretty special.”
Ferentz has long used the term “Kodak moment” to describe plays that stick out to him.
Stanley’s picture-perfect play came in the second half against Ohio State after a fake field goal put Iowa at the Buckeyes’ 2-yard line.
Stanley was out of the pocket with an Ohio State defender draped around his ankle. Instead of going down, Stanley fired a touchdown pass to Hockenson that gave Iowa a 38-17 lead and essentially sent the Buckeyes packing.
“I think it fired us all up. He’s a big dude, obviously,” Easley said. “Staying in there with a guy hanging on his leg was pretty awesome.”