By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – When covering Iowa Hawkeye athletics, I try my best to be fair, balanced and objective.
But for this column, I went full-scale homer in honor of Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley, who has one last chance on Saturday to defeat his home-state Wisconsin Badgers.
My head says pick the Badgers to win at home, but my heart, of course, is pulling for Stanley and the Hawkeyes.
It’s better for business when Iowa prevails, but this is more about hoping that Stanley gets rewarded for how he has represented the Iowa football program with class and dignity.
If I had a son, I’d want him to be just like Nate Stanley, whose parents deserve praise for raising him the right way.
Not once have I ever heard Stanley say anything that would be close to bragging or critical of others. It’s always about the team, and never about him.
Stanley never makes excuses or points the finger at his teammates.
He isn’t a big rah-rah guy, either.
Instead, he leads by example and with high character.
I recently paid my respects to Stanley on Twitter by saying that I’ve covered the Iowa football team for nearly 30 years and it’s hard to think of another player who has been more humble, unassuming, appreciative, accountable and team-oriented than Stanley.
Unfortunately, some used my tweet as a chance to belittle Stanley, or to say that I have him over-rated, even though I didn’t rate him.
There is a part of the Iowa fan base that is frustrated with Stanley’s inconsistency and with his inability to win big games, especially on the road.
Stanley will leave Iowa as a three-year starter and as one of the most productive quarterbacks in program history. His 62 career touchdown passes ranks second all-time at Iowa behind Chuck Long’s 74 scoring strikes.
But on the flipside, Iowa is just 12-11 in conference games with Stanley as the starting quarterback.
Stanley is 0-2 against Wisconsin, and he performed woefully during a 38-14 loss at Camp Randall Stadium in 2017.
But as Kirk Ferentz pointed out at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, so did everybody except Josh Jackson, whose two interception returns for touchdowns helped to make a humiliating loss look not quite as humiliating.
“Hopefully, all of us around him will handle it better, too, and help him a little bit more because there wasn't much good that we did up there a couple years ago,” Kirk Ferentz said. “And we'll find out it was either an aberration or a trend.
“Hopefully not a trend.”
Stanley has started 34 consecutive games, whereas in 2017 he was only making his 10th career start when Iowa played at Wisconsin.
“He's so much more veteran, I guess, or experienced, whatever the best word would be there,” Ferentz said. “He's been through a lot now. Good, bad or indifferent, and that helps a player. He'll still be antsy out there, and it's a tough road game in a tough environment, but he's played in those now. He's got more experience under his belt, and I think he'll probably handle it a little bit better.”
Stanley has been interviewed more than any other Iowa player since he became a starter in 2017. He is requested for every press conference, before and after games, and he always shows up and treats the media with respect.
He rarely says anything that would qualify as exciting or newsworthy, but it isn’t Stanley responsibility to give the media colorful quotes.
Stanley’s job is to run the Iowa offense, take care of his academics and represent his team and his school the right way.
And he does all of those things with class and with dignity.
As far as Saturday’s game at Camp Randall Stadium, Iowa doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt against Wisconsin because the Badgers have won six of the last seven games in the series, and are playing at home.
Wisconsin has come back down to Earth after its beat-down against Michigan, with consecutive losses to Illinois and Ohio State.
The loss to Illinois was stunning, but also an example of how turnovers can narrow the gap between two teams at different levels, while the loss to Ohio State might have said more about the Buckeyes than Wisconsin.
Ohio State has national title contender written all over it, while Wisconsin is teetering between being elite and being good.
Remember, the Badgers finished just 8-5 last season, and you can guarantee that Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez hasn’t taken the fall from elite status very well.
Alvarez turned Wisconsin into a Big Ten power in the 1990s as head coach and nothing really has changed over the past quarter century.
Maybe last season’s 8-5 record was a sign that Wisconsin’s stranglehold of the Big Ten West Division is starting to loosen.
Maybe the Badgers are more vulnerable than we think heading into Saturday’s game, and Iowa will seize the moment with Stanley leading the way.
It would make for a great story if Stanley were to make his third time against the Badgers a charm.
A victory would also keep Iowa in contention for the Big Ten West Division title, and team accolades are what Stanley needs more than anything at this stage to enhance his legacy.
“This game means a lot as far as standings for us in the Big Ten,” Stanley said. “Ultimately, it is just another game for us, but you know, it impacts for the rest of the season.”
The best way Iowa could help Stanley on Saturday, besides playing well on defense, is to run the ball effectively.
Stanley has shown that he can be very productive when he has the luxury of using play action.
However, the only way play action works is when a team has success on the ground.
Nothing worked for Iowa on offense against Wisconsin in 2017.
So how you avoid a repeat of that debacle?
“I think just the experience that a lot of guys on our team have now, we can handle that environment very well,” Stanley said. “So I think with some of the environments we’ve played at this year already, we have an idea of what to expect and how to handle it.”
I picked Wisconsin to defeat Iowa in early August, but my confidence in the Badgers has waned ever so slightly.
The Iowa defense is rock-solid and special teams have also been a strength for the most part.
I’m reluctantly sticking with the Badgers to win a low-scoring game, but hope I’m wrong, mostly for Stanley’s benefit because he deserves a milestone moment, especially in his home state.
But as I've been reminded by some Iowa fans, it'll take more than having high character and experience to win in Madison on Saturday.
Prediction: Wisconsin 19, Iowa 17