Regardless of whom Iowa’s offense faced last season, some coach by game’s end reached for the Pepto-Bismol.
Iowa State’s Matt Campbell needed a slug of it Sept. 9, after the Hawkeyes produced scoring drives of 76, 91, 94, 92 and 89 yards to topple the Cyclones 44-41 in overtime. Quarterback Nate Stanley threw for 333 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions.
Two weeks later, Iowa coaches gulped from the pink bottle.
Stanley led a fourth-quarter comeback against Penn State, but the Hawkeyes — with 132 yards through three quarters — lost on the final play 21-19.
On Nov. 4, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer needed more than an antacid after dealing with Iowa’s offense.
The Hawkeyes exploded for a 55-24 win as Stanley led them to 487 total yards while throwing five touchdown passes with no picks. Meyer arrived at the postgame press conference looking like he needed an appendectomy.
But a mere seven days later, Iowa’s offense couldn’t be saved by any medicine or procedure. In a 38-14 loss to Wisconsin, that unit gained 66 yards and scored no touchdowns. Stanley was 8 of 24 with an interception, and the rushing average was less than a yard per carry.
How do you explain such wild swings in productivity over short periods?
A first-year starting quarterback (Stanley) and a first-time offensive coordinator (Brian Ferentz) are a good place to start.
“It was our first dance together ... everybody,” said Ferentz, son of coach Kirk Ferentz. “Now, we’re going into Year 2, and hopefully you have a little bit more singleness of purpose, a little bit more cohesiveness, whether it’s the staff, the players and familiarity in the system.”
Stanley finished his sophomore season with 26 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
But for as many times as the 6-foot-4, 242-pound product of Menomonie, Wisconsin, electrified the scoreboard, he also was the leader when Iowa scored 10 points in a loss to Michigan State, 10 points in a loss to Northwestern, 15 in a loss to Purdue and 17 in a win over Minnesota.
Much of that comes back to Stanley’s completion rate: 55.8 percent.
“We want to make sure our completion percentage is up there over 60 percent,” Brian Ferentz said. “We were 57 last year. That’s just not good enough. The yardage isn’t as important. But I know if we’re throwing the ball efficiently, we’ll be moving the ball.”
Stanley said spring 2018 was much improved over a year ago, especially in becoming more consistent.
“Definitely with it being the second year in the system and being comfortable with the coaches,” he said. “We strive for consistency every single day. This spring, I think we took a good step forward.”
Stanley’s hometown may have caught your eye. Here’s the tale of how he slipped away from Wisconsin.
The Badger coach at the time was Gary Andersen, who favored a mobile quarterback who could run some option. That wasn’t Stanley, who committed to Iowa in November 2014.
A month later, Andersen fled to Oregon State and Wisconsin hired Paul Chryst, a former Badger quarterback and offensive coordinator who saw Stanley as a hand-in-glove fit for UW’s pro-style offense.
Chryst, who had contacted Stanley while coaching Pittsburgh, tried to flip him. But Stanley stuck with his commitment to Iowa, which pleases Ferentz.
“We have a quarterback who’s closer to the mastery of the system,” the coach said.
Iowa demands much from its quarterbacks.
“That’s why a lot of players in our system are coveted,” Ferentz said. “We ask them to think. We don’t just have everybody turn and look to the sideline and we hold up some super-cool poster board.
“We feel like our quarterback has the best seat in the house. He can see things better than any of us, and when he gets that mastery where now he can run the show and he can drive the bus from where he’s sitting, then I think we have a chance to be a little bit better.”
Two conclusions come from all this:
First, Brian Ferentz needs to do every Iowa press conference. Gotta love blunt mixed with colorful.
Second, football is the greatest team game of all except at one position — quarterback. With Stanley in that spot, the Hawkeyes have a chance to move up.
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 20th year, 143-97
2017 record: 8-5 (4-5, T-3rd in West)
Returning starters: 15 (7 offense, 6 defense, 2 kickers)
Good news: The Hawkeyes have two tight ends destined for the NFL some day: Junior Noah Fant out of Omaha South and sophomore T.J. Hockenson. With a strong 2018, Fant likely will be an early entry into the draft. He led all tight ends nationally in yards-per-catch at 16.5, and snagged an Iowa tight end-record 11 touchdowns.
Not so good: Iowa lost all three starting linebackers, who were the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 top tacklers. Those are critical positions in this system, so the need for players such as Amani Jones (6-0, 238 pounds) to emerge at middle linebacker is crucial.
Pay attention to: The offensive line. That group lost starters James Daniels (early entry to NFL) and Sean Welch (graduation). Injuries caused a merry-go-round of lineups. Depth and health are key elements to watch up front.
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No. 20 Baker Steinkuhler, DT, 2011-2012: Perhaps the best way to show his impact was how his absence, due to injury, shaped the 2012 Big Ten Championship game. Without him, Nebraska seemed powerless to stop Wisconsin’s running game. Steinkuhler had 87 tackles and 12 for loss over the last two seasons of his career. He didn’t miss a start for three seasons — until the Big Ten Championship.
No. 19 Eric Martin, LB/DE, 2011-2012: A great special teams player in his first two years at Nebraska, Martin found his footing in his final two seasons at NU, especially in 2012, when he had 18 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He was first-team All-Big Ten as a result.
No. 18 Jeremiah Sirles, OT, 2011-2013: There aren’t many offensive linemen on the list, but Sirles — a versatile, steady performer who didn’t miss a start in his final two seasons — deserves mention. He played left and right tackle as injuries to teammates dictated and won second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012.
No. 17 Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, 2011-2013: He seemed headed for a footnote career — an interception in the big comeback win over Ohio State in 2011 — until a spectacular senior year, in which he had four interceptions, 12 pass breakups and made second-team All-Big Ten. He had interceptions in four straight games, too.
No. 16 Quincy Enunwa, WR, 2011-2013: He might have cracked the top five had NU not wasted his freshman year on a handful of plays. Enunwa was raw out of high school, but by his senior year, he wasn’t just a good blocker and a hard guy to tackle — he was a top-shelf receiver. In 2013, he had 51 catches for 753 yards and a school-record 12 touchdowns, the last of which was a 99-yarder to beat Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
No. 15 Alfonzo Dennard, CB, 2011: Even if his best season was 2010, Dennard won Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2011. Dennard most notably shut down Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham, who was held without a catch in the 2011 game in Lincoln. Teams often threw away from Dennard during his senior year.
No. 14 Ciante Evans, CB, 2011-2013: He started 33 games and really hit his stride in 2013, when he had 11 tackles for loss and four interceptions on his way to first-team All-Big Ten honors. Evans was versatile enough to play nickel for NU and sometimes gets lost in the shuffle in recent Husker history.
No. 13 Stanley Morgan, WR, 2015-present: Poised to rise deep into the top 10 by the end of his senior year, Morgan will likely end his career as one of the best receivers in Nebraska football history. He broke the team’s single-season record for receiving yards last year with 986 yards. The career records for catches, yards and even touchdowns are also in sight. He has 1,743 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career thus far.
No. 12 Tommy Armstrong, QB, 2013-2016: He played in 45 games, started 44 and had his share of great moments — 2014 Iowa, 2015 Michigan State and 2016 Oregon. He also won two bowl games. He had 8,871 career passing yards, 1,819 rushing yards and 90 total touchdowns. He was tough as nails, too, but rarely played his best when Nebraska had the most to gain.
No. 11 Randy Gregory, DE, 2013-2014: Easily the most gifted Nebraska athlete of the Big Ten era, Gregory ran and leapt like a puma. Is it unfair to have him outside the top 10? Many would say yes. For me, he’s No. 11. When Gregory was good — for the last half of 2013 — he was great, but his up-and-down play in 2014 drops him a little bit on the list. Gregory left after his junior year to play in the NFL.
No. 10 Nate Gerry, S, 2013-2016: The man made a lot of plays at Nebraska, especially those 13 interceptions and 19 pass breakups. Gerry could be inconsistent, but he tended to raise his game deeper into Big Ten play. His signature game might have been 2016 Wisconsin, when he had two interceptions, or 2014 Iowa, when he had an end-zone pick and 15 tackles.
No. 9 Jordan Westerkamp, WR, 2013-2016: No recent Husker receiver had more highlight catches and plays than “Westy,” who was a sturdy option on third down and on the receiving end of Hail Mary play in the 2013 Northwestern game. Clutch when it counted — on fourth down against Oregon in 2016, on the final drive against Michigan State in 2015 — Westerkamp finished with 2,474 yards receiving.
No. 8 Maliek Collins, DT, 2013-2015: Focused from the day he got on campus, Collins missed only one game over three seasons before declaring early for the NFL Draft. His signature season came in 2014 as a sophomore, when he finished with 14 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries. Collins was one of the best high school recruits of the Bo Pelini era.
No. 7 Spencer Long, OG, 2011-2013: The best offensive lineman in the Big Ten era was, of course, a walk-on. Long was a nimble-but-powerful road grader at guard, capable of getting out in front of a ballcarrier or warding off a blitz. After making first-team All-Big Ten in 2012, his senior year in 2013 was cut short by an injury at Purdue.
No. 6 Will Compton, LB, 2011-2012: A lunch-pail guy who emerged as one of Nebraska’s best pure leaders in the Big Ten era. Compton had 192 tackles, 13 for loss and an interception returned for a touchdown over his last two seasons. He was a big part of NU's first two Big Ten teams, arguably its two best, including the divisional championship team in 2012.
No. 5 Kenny Bell, WR, 2011-2014: He holds Nebraska’s career records for receptions and receiving yards, and he had his share of highlight plays — that one-handed catch against Illinois defied logic. Bell’s speed made him a deep threat that opened up the rest of the field, and he had a memorable kickoff return touchdown to help beat Penn State in 2013. He peaked as a sophomore — 50 catches for 863 yards and eight touchdowns — but he may have been at his best in the 2013 Michigan State game when he caught seven passes for 81 yards against elite corners. He was a fan favorite for his smile, his friendliness and, yes, the hair.
No. 4 Rex Burkhead, RB, 2011-2012: As beloved as any running back in Husker history. Burkhead was a smiling, often quiet battler who had sweet moves and a lot of toughness to plow through injuries. His junior year in 2011 — when he ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns — was notable, and Burkhead played in eight games as a senior, overcoming a knee injury suffered in the season opener.
No. 3 Taylor Martinez, QB, 2011-2013: Too high? Think again. Nebraska wins the Big Ten Legends crown in 2012 because of Martinez’s ability to pull big plays from seemingly thin air, and coaches voted him first-team All-Big Ten too. His junior season — 2,871 yards passing, 1,019 yards rushing, 33 total touchdowns — was marked by double-digit comeback wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan State. Martinez’s senior season was marred by a dislocated toe, but he didn’t miss a game in 2011 or 2012.
No. 2 Lavonte David, LB, 2011: He played just one year in the Big Ten, but what a season! David was Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and an All-American with 133 tackles, 13 for loss, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. His superb play helped the Huskers win two of their biggest games in 2011 — Penn State and Ohio State — and his pass-coverage skills were crucial in wins over Iowa and Washington. David is one of the best linebackers in school history.
No. 1 Ameer Abdullah, RB, 2011-2014: A no-brainer, Abdullah is one of the best running backs in school history, finishing with 4,744 yards rushing and becoming the first Husker to have three 1,000-yard seasons. A bizarre goal-line injury against Purdue in 2014 slowed his Heisman and Doak Walker campaigns, and also kept him from setting the school’s all-time rushing record. Still, that season — with his masterpiece of 229 yards on 35 carries against Miami — won’t be soon forgotten. Nebraska missed Abdullah more in 2015 and 2016 than fans may appreciate.