By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Something felt different about Iowa’s 48-31 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.
The entire day on Saturday was unusual or weird or strange or whatever you want to call it.
It started on my walk to TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis when a man wearing a suit, tie and a trench coat, and eating a walking taco, asked me for $22 to help a friend.
I respectfully said that I didn’t have it on me and then wondered why he had picked me out of the crowd for a handout.
I then arrived at the press box where they were serving Chinese food of all items, including a tasty chicken breast and a soggy egg roll. I’ve free-loaded more than my share of press box food since the early 1990s, but couldn’t remember a time when Chinese food was served.
The Gophers deserve credit for trying something different.
So maybe I should’ve realized by then that the game would be different because it certainly proved that way, considering Iowa had two true freshmen cornerbacks – Julius Brents and Riley Moss – start for the first time and combine for three of the team’s four interceptions, and that tight end T.J. Hockenson scored a touchdown on a fake field goal in which took what was a five- or six-foot lateral snap from long snapper Jackson Subbert and then raced to the corner of the end zone from four yards out.
But maybe even stranger than that all of that was how the game was won, with the Iowa offense leading the way behind a creative, aggressive and sometimes explosive attack.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley completed 23-of-39 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns, marking just the third time he has surpassed 300 yards in 18 games as Iowa's starting quarterback, but for the second time in the last three games.
So it was unusual for Stanley to surpass 300 yards passing, but to do it twice in the last three games could be a sign that the passing attack is starting to click.
The fact that 14 of Stanley’s completions and two of his touchdown passes were to receivers, three receivers to be more specific, was also unusual. Nick Easley finished with with six catches, including a 21-yard touchdown in the second quarter, while Brandon Smith had a career-high five catches for 68 yards and Ihmir Smith-Marsette had three for a team-high 78 yards.
Easley, Smith and Smith-Marsette had combined for just 24 catches and one touchdown in the first four games.
A position that so often has been a weakness suddenly turned into a strength against the Gophers.
The question now is was it an aberration or a sign that Iowa’s much-maligned receivers are making progress?
Minnesota leaves much to be desired from a talent and experience standpoint, but the Gophers entered Saturday’s game ranked third in the Big Ten in passing defense.
That could be misleading due partly to Minnesota having played just one conference game, but you take what you can get.
The combination of Easley, Smith and Smith-Marsette met the challenge in a game in which the heralded Iowa defense was more ordinary than extraordinary.
Easley looked like the reliable receiver who led Iowa with 51 catches last season, while Smith and Smith-Marsette showed the kind of athleticism that could take the passing attack to another level.
The challenge now, especially for Smith and Smith-Marsette, is to sustain that level of performance.
Smith appears to be figuring ways to use his size (6-foot-3, 219) and strength to his advantage. His catch on Saturday in which he reached over the shoulders of a Gopher defender, who was draped all over him, was a thing of beauty and a testimony to Smith’s skill set.
Smith was asked after Saturday’s game if he feels that he is now looking like a major college receiver.
“I mean, I guess,” he said. “AlI I really can do is just keep playing hard and keep trying to make plays.”
Smith-Marsette showed his blazing speed on a 60-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter and on a 49-yard kick return in the third quarter.
But he also showed his maturity and poise on the touchdown reception because it came on a play in which Stanley scrambled from the pocket. Smith-Marsette knew he had to stay patient and trust his route against what he knew would be cover-two defense after noticing at the line of scrimmage that the Minnesota cornerback had switched from an open to a closed stance.
“I knew if the safety didn’t get over the top that I would be wide open somewhere in the little hole area,” Smith-Marsette said. “And Nate, he scrambled and made a great play on his part. He found me late.”
Smith-Marsette believes he could’ve reacted the same way last season as a true freshman, but he wasn’t nearly as confident after having dropped some passes early in the season.
The New Jersey native was up-and-down as a true freshman. Smith-Marsette made a game-winning catch against Iowa State in overtime, but also had six games in which he caught one or fewer passes.
“I could have done it a year ago, but just my confidence level wasn’t there all of last year,” Smith-Marsette said. “Once I started having some drops, it just got to me.
“But definitely a year ago, I could have made the play, but the confidence thing just held me back. I’m way more confident in myself.”
Stanley thought about running on the touchdown pass to Smith-Marsette until noticing that his speedy receiver was open.
"I anticipated tucking it and running, but he popped open in my field of view," Stanley said. "He did a great job of catching the ball and taking it in for a touchdown."
It’s important to remember that this was just one game in which the Iowa receivers helped lead the way to victory.
The jury still is out and will be for a while.
Smith struggled to live up the hype that accompanied his arrival from Mississippi last season. Some in the media were quick to anoint him as a star on the rise, but the transition from high school to college wasn’t easy, evident by Smith catching only three passes for 15 yards last season.
“I’m finally getting into a groove with the offense and it feels really good to be a making a big impact for the team and helping the team out,” Smith said.
The next challenge for the Iowa receivers will be Saturday’s game at Indiana, which allowed 455 passing yards and six touchdowns during this past Saturday’s 49-26 loss to Ohio State.
There will be an opportunity for the Iowa receivers to make plays against a defense that is suspect at best.
It’s just a matter of doing it, again and again.