BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It was the kind of performance that almost led Nate Stanley to crack a smile.
Iowa’s ultra-serious quarterback threw six touchdown passes Saturday – one shy of a school record set by Chuck Hartlieb in a 1987 game against Northwestern – while guiding a 479-yard offensive performance that led the Hawkeyes to a 42-16 victory at Indiana.
“We still have things to work on,’’ Stanley explained after Iowa reached the midpoint of its regular-season schedule with a 5-1 record, including a 2-1 start in the Big Ten.
Stanley did throw an interception that allowed the Hoosiers to pull within 14-10 early in the second quarter, one of flew blemishes in an otherwise solid performance.
The Hawkeye junior completed 21 of 33 passes for 320 yards, connecting with nine receivers while crafting his third 300-yard passing performance in his last four starts.
Stanley spread the wealth around, throwing touchdown passes to five different Hawkeyes in an effort which began by making the most of the mismatches Iowa tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant presented the Indiana defense.
Both topped 100 receiving yards while catching four balls apiece, Hockenson collecting touchdown passes of 9 and 54 yards and Fant following Hockenson’s first reception in the end zone by scoring on a 28-yard pass which left Iowa in front 14-3 after one quarter.
Indiana coach Tom Allen said his team had no answer for the combination of size and speed presented by the two premier tight ends Iowa put on the field.
He hoped his team would counter that by being able to put pressure on Stanley but working behind an offensive line which surrendered one sack, Stanley broke both that part of the Hoosiers game plan and several tackle attempts by Indiana defenders who did get close to 6-foot-4, 242-pound Hawkeye.
“He’s a big dude and my goodness, we bounced off him like pinball,’’ Allen said. “He was a big, strong guy that we couldn’t get on the ground. He’s a good player, a better player than our guys trying to get him on the ground. We weren’t good enough.’’
Stanley, who has completed 65.8 percent of the 123 passes he has attempted in Iowa’s last four games since connecting on 52.9 percent in the first two games of the year, credits the players around him for making it happen.
“It’s the receivers, the running backs, the offensive line and the protection they’re giving me, it takes all those things to make it work,’’ Stanley said.
He said Iowa’s game plan against the Hoosiers didn’t vary much from the ones that preceded it, starting with an initial objective of being balanced and making the most of what defenses allow.
The Hawkeyes accomplished that in the opening quarter, rushing for 67 yards and passing for 67.
Toren Young finished the day with 96 of the 159 yards Iowa gained on the ground, but the quickest route to the end zone proved be the bullets leaving Stanley’s arm.
He hit Nick Easley with a 21-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter, giving Iowa a 21-10 lead at the half which grew to 28-10 when Young scored on an 11-yard pass play and Hockenson busted free for his 54-yard score just under six minutes into the third quarter.
“We’re trying to become a championship-level team and once we get up on a team, we’re trying to keep the foot on the gas,’’ Hockenson said. “They were showing us a little zone, a little one-on-one, which is what we expected coming in. When we expected them to blitz, Nate checked out of it. It starts with Nate Stanley. He sees some things other quarterbacks don’t always see.’’
As much as anything, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz believes Stanley and to a degree, the entire Hawkeye offense is maturing.
“The big thing, if you look at us compared to a year ago, we had two freshmen tackles, two freshmen receivers and really, T.J. wasn’t an experienced guy and Noah had played just a handful of snaps his first year. We were just a really young team,’’ Ferentz said.
“Compare that to now … and I think we are just better balanced and a little more seasoned than we were a year ago.’’
Indiana (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) attempted to make things interesting.
Quarterback Peyton Ramsey scored on a 12-yard keeper to cut the Iowa advantage to 35-16 with 5:55 remaining in the third quarter, then connected on all seven passes he attempted on the Hoosiers’ next possession before an attempt from the 6-yard line was picked off in the end zone by the Hawkeyes’ Geno Stone with 13:22 left in the game.
“Geno’s pick really helped us get control of things,’’ Ferentz said. “It came at a time when we needed it.’’
The Hawkeyes answered with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that ended when Austin Kelly completed the Hawkeyes’ scoring, grabbing a 4-yard touchdown pass from Stanley with 9:23 to go.
“I think as any offense, we’re feeling comfortable with how things are going,’’ Stanley said. “In the passing game or the run game, we feel like we can do the job and move the chains. We can do even better, and we’ll keep working on that, but it is good to see everything fit together like that.’’