By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Nate Stanley’s legacy won’t be on the line against Michigan on Saturday in the Big House, but a victory in the storied stadium with a seating capacity of 107,601 would certainly enhance it.
Stanley has started 30 consecutive games and has thrown 60 touchdown passes, which ranks third all-time in program history behind Chuck Long (74) and Drew Tate (61).
Stanley performed brilliantly during Iowa’s historic 55-24 beat-down against Ohio State in 2017 at Kinnick Stadium, throwing five touchdown passes. He is also 2-0 as a starter in bowl games and 3-0 against Iowa State, with two victories in Ames.
But the one thing missing from Stanley’s growing list of achievements is a signature Big Ten road win.
He has led No. 14 Iowa to conference road wins at Nebraska in 2017 and at Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois last season.
And he has the two wins in Ames, including the 44-41 overtime thriller in 2017 at Jack Trice Stadium in which he threw five touchdown passes, including the game winner in overtime.
So it’s not that Stanley has performed poorly on the road. He just hasn’t led Iowa to a milestone victory outside of Kinnick Stadium, and that helps to explain why he is 10-9 against Big Ten opponents as a starter.
The two victories at Iowa State probably are Stanley’s best road wins, but that isn't saying a lot, although, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz would disagree. Ferentz believes that Stanley's experience, and his composure, helped him withstand the distractions in Ames, and that it should help at the Big House, too.
"Nate is a veteran guy, that experience I think certainly helped him on the road last time out,” Ferentz said of Iowa’s 18-17 victory on Sept. 14 in Ames. “That was a really tough environment. Again, I say people outside of the state really can't appreciate — I think people around here get it, but that's a tough place for us to play, just like I think it's tough when they come here.
“So the intensity of that series and being on the road and the conditions there, that's really great preparation for playing in tough stadiums in our conference. Again, having a veteran quarterback I think is certainly a plus. It doesn't guarantee anything, but it's certainly a plus.”
Even if you accept Iowa State as two signature road wins for Stanley, the Cyclones still aren’t a Big Ten team.
Minnesota is the only Big Ten team that Iowa has defeated on the road with Stanley at quarterback that finished with a winning record, and that was 7-6 last season.
A victory at Michigan on Saturday would make a statement not only for Iowa as a team, but also for Stanley, assuming he performs well.
“Obviously, it’s a great environment and one of the historic venues in college football,” Stanley said. “So it should be a great opportunity to go in there and play in a special environment like that.”
It’s hard to see Iowa winning in the Big House if Stanley doesn’t have at least a decent performance.
He has yet to throw an interception this season, and to keep that streak alive on Saturday at Michigan would be significant.
Stanley is the ultimate team-first guy, so it’s never about him.
But it’s always about the quarterback to a certain extent.
Quarterback is widely regarded as the most important and highest profile position in all of team sports, and with that comes a massive responsibility and a never-ending spotlight.
Quarterbacks often get too much credit for victories and too much blame for losses because it just goes with the territory behind center.
You could even say this column is an example of that since Stanley isn’t the only multi-year starter for Iowa to fall short on the road in conference play.
But he’s the starting quarterback, and is judged differently than his teammates.
It’s his team, win or lose.
Iowa lost road games last season at Penn State and Purdue by scores of 30-24 and 38-36, respectively. Stanley’s performance in both games left much to be desired, especially the Penn State game where he completed just 18-of-49 passes for 205 yards and two interceptions.
He also combined to throw just one touchdown pass and was intercepted twice in road losses at Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin in 2017.
Nothing should faze Stanley at this stage, given his experience. He has played before large, hostile crowds, and the Big House is known more for its huge seating capacity than for its raucous environment.
Stanley also has a talented supporting cast that should be at close to full strength with the return of starting left tackle Alaric Jackson from injury.
Iowa has depth at both receiver and running back, and arguably the best pair of offensive tackles in the Big Ten. So the pieces are in place for something special to happen in the Big House.
Former Iowa quarterback Brad Banks came out of nowhere to finish runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 2002, and his performance during a 34-9 victory at Michigan helped launch him to stardom.
One game doesn’t define a career, but one game can help to change how a quarterback is perceived. Especially if that one game is a victory at Michigan.
“If your quarterback plays well at home or away, it's a good thing, and the way we're wired, that's certainly a good thing, too,” Kirk Ferentz said.
Stanley can’t do it alone, however.
He needs the Iowa running game to be productive because that would create play action, and that's when Stanley, like any pro-style quarterback, is at his best.
Iowa is averaging a whopping 217.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten. But it’s sort of misleading because it includes 351 rushing yards against Middle Tennessee State and just 112 against Iowa State.
“I think everybody is doing a great job at knowing their part in the run game and then executing it on the field,” Stanley said.
Wisconsin used its vaunted rushing attack to dismantle Michigan 35-14 on Sept. 21 in Madison, Wis., but the Badgers also have arguably the best running back in college football in junior Jonathan Taylor, as Kirk Ferentz pointed out on Tuesday.
“I know where my vote for best running back in the country would go right now,” Kirk Ferentz said of Johnathan Taylor. “Just watching him play is pretty good. I don't mean that to diminish other people's work that's out there, but sometimes games like that happen to teams, good teams. We've seen that before, and we've been victimized by that ourselves.
“But it was one of those days, Wisconsin just played a tremendous football game, and it just wasn't Michigan's day. But I've got to say that back is pretty special, too.”
Iowa doesn’t have a running back of Taylor's ilk, but Iowa does have four reliable options at running back that will challenge Michigan’s defense.
Saturday’s matchup will be Iowa’s first game at the Big House since 2012, and Stanley is right to call it a great opportunity for his team.
But it’s also a great opportunity for him to erase something from his to-do list as a quarterback.
Iowa vs. Michigan
When: Saturday, 11:05 a.m.
Where: Michigan Stadium (107,601), Ann Arbor, Mich.
Series: Michigan leads 41-15-4