MADISON — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knew quickly he had something special in quarterback Nate Stanley.
When established starter C.J. Beathard was injured during a 2016 game against North Dakota State, Stanley made his way onto the field as a true freshman. It was Stanley’s third appearance, but his first in a close game. Ferentz said on a phone call with reporters Tuesday he didn’t have any hesitation letting Stanley throw on his first snap. He did, completing a pass to tight end George Kittle for 37 yards.
Ferentz said the confidence he and the rest of the Hawkeyes have in Stanley has only grown since.
“He earned our confidence four years ago,” Ferentz said. “When C.J. Beathard went down ... we were confident in letting him throw and playing him. The person he is now is the person he was four years ago.”
Stanley, a Menomonie native in his third year as the starter for Iowa, leads the No. 18 Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) into Saturday’s game against the 13th-ranked University of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium with a lot on the line. Most notably, both the Hawkeyes and Badgers (6-2, 3-2) need the win to keep realistic chances afloat of a West Division title.
But for Stanley, a senior, it’s also his last crack at his home-state team.
Since Stanley took over as the starter in 2017, the Badgers have beaten the Hawkeyes 38-14 and 28-17. Stanley struggled in 2017 against UW, completing 8 of 24 passes for 41 yards and an interception. He was better at home last season, finishing 14-for-23 for 256 yards and two touchdowns, but he was 3 of 9 with an interception in the fourth quarter, when the Badgers scored 14 points to win the game.
If Stanley has extra motivation against UW, he’s not showing it, Ferentz said.
“Nate plays his cards pretty close to the vest. He’s the same guy every day, and I say that in an endearing way,” Ferentz said.
“He’s businesslike. I’m sure he’s got some inner feeling, some extra pulse, but he’s not one to show it.”
UW coach Paul Chryst recruited Stanley when Chryst returned to the program before the 2015 season, but Iowa was already a front-runner and Stanley orally committed to the Hawkeyes in 2016.
Ferentz told reporters Monday he and his staff were concerned they might lose Stanley to the Badgers but said Stanley and his family “never wavered” in their commitment.
While the Badgers have done a good job limiting Stanley in the prior meetings, UW defenders have a good deal of respect for what Iowa’s quarterback can do.
“He’s a big guy. When you get to him, make sure you secure him. He’s not going to go down easy, kind of like a Ben Roethlisberger-type of guy,” UW senior outside linebacker Zack Baun said of Stanley. “He can make every throw on the field, a true gunslinger.”
Iowa doesn’t have the explosive running game it’s accustomed to — it is averaging 145.8 yards per game on the ground and 3.9 per carry — it leans on Stanley to get the offense going through the air.
Stanley doesn’t have the benefit of stellar tight ends as he did a season ago with T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant (both were selected in the first round of the NFL draft), but he does have a strong group of receivers to whom he’s spreading the ball. Three receivers — Brandon Smith (33 catches), Nico Ragaini (31) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (30) — have 30 or more catches.
The work Stanley does at the line of scrimmage is what most impresses UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Stanley is making reads at the line and adjusting his offense however necessary to attack an opponent’s weakness.
“They put a ton on him. Run game, pass game, protections, switching plays, getting them out of plays. It all starts with him and he’s really good at it,” Leonhard said. “He’s a guy who’s hard to trick. You’ve got to make him think. You’ve got to present different looks for him, and make sure he’s on, make sure he’s on his game.”
Ferentz said Stanley’s experience and knowledge of Iowa’s system allows him to be free to make changes to play calls or alignments to get the offense into a good situation.
Senior linebacker Chris Orr said getting Stanley uncomfortable Saturday will be crucial to UW holding on to the Heartland Trophy for a fourth straight season.
“Being in a pro scheme, he’s always making a check, trying to get them in the best position on each play. If we can neutralize him, it’d help us out a lot,” Orr said. “It’s definitely a chess match. Something that you look forward to, and it’ll be fun.’’