No. 19 Iowa’s passing game finally flying

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — For years, Iowa’s passing game was stuck in a rut. The Hawkeyes have finally gotten untracked.

No. 19 Iowa (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) moved into the Top 25 for the first time this year on the strength of back-to-back road wins powered by junior quarterback Nate Stanley and a passing attack that opponents have to respect.

Stanley has thrown for 10 touchdowns over the past two games — including a career-high six in last week’s 42-16 win at Indiana — and Iowa’s 256.2 passing yards per game are its most since 2005. The surging Hawkeyes host Maryland (4-2, 2-1) on Saturday.

“Just the quality of work that we’ve put in in practice, not just the last couple of weeks but over the summer, through camp and up until now, has kind of come together for us,” said Stanley, whose 15 touchdown passes rank second in the Big Ten. “Just looking forward to the same thing continuing on.”

Though the Hawkeyes have preached balance under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz, the running game has often been the most potent portion of the offense — often because of a seemingly never-ending struggle to recruit and develop quality receivers.

Just two years ago, Iowa finished 118th nationally with 153.2 passing yards per game despite the presence of senior quarterback and future NFL starter C.J. Beathard. Ferentz cleaned house after that season. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis and wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy left the program and Ferentz put his son Brian, then the line coach, in charge of the offense.

Stanley had an impressive ratio last season (26 touchdowns, six interceptions), but Iowa’s overall passing yards (190.2) and completion percentage (56.1) were still among the worst in America.

Stanley and the Hawkeyes were sluggish through the air to start 2018 as well, with Stanley throwing for just 274 yards and one touchdown through two games. But it was evident from the opener that Stanley’s footwork had improved in the offseason, and his often-shaky touch on deep balls had gotten better.

Things seemed to finally click in a 38-14 blowout of Northern Iowa on Sept. 15. Since then, Stanley has thrown for 14 touchdowns in just four games.

“One thing about Nate is (that) he’s always going to stay the same,” said receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette. “That’s something cool that I like about him. He’s not going to switch up for anybody, and no award is going to make him act different.”

Stanley has been able to put up such big numbers in part because his young receivers are beginning to live up to their potential — enough to take some pressure off standout tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. Smith-Marsette and fellow sophomore Brandon Smith, both of whom saw significant action in 2017 out of necessity, have combined to catch 24 passes for 400 yards.

“Personally, I just think we’re a little more experienced,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We just had a lot of young players on offense last year, and I think it showed at times.”

Smith-Marsette and Smith’s production, while hardly prolific, has made it much tougher for opponents to justify double-teaming Fant or Hockenson. Fant still has six touchdown catches while Hockenson is averaging 17.9 yards per catch, third-best nationally among tight ends, and his 394 yards are the second-most at his position.

The tight ends combined for 210 yards receiving and three touchdowns against the Hoosiers.

“They can take 15-yard plays and take it to the crib. So we get off the field and there are points on the board,” Smith said.

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