Nate Stanley has had signature moments during his three-year Iowa career: 55-24, nomination into the Iowa State Hall of Fame, and shutting up those damn cowbells. And if you want to add the 56-14 Nebraska pasting, well, I'm not going to quibble with you.
But there is one glaring omission from his resume: a signature Big Ten road victory. A signature Big Ten road victory means going into a conference blueblood and shuffling out of (Madison, Columbus, Happy Valley, Ann Arbor, or East Lansing in most years) with a little hokey pokey in the step.
While Iowa has had reasonable levels of success against Big Ten powers at Kinnick under Stanley, the road has been far less kinder. Under Stanley, Iowa’s road performances in its show-out games have vacillated between ugly (Michigan State 2017) and parental advisory: unwatchable content (Wisconsin 2017, Penn State 2018, Michigan 2019). And, sure, Iowa’s offensive philosophy (Tresselball reincarnated) and playcalling deserve plenty of blame, but Stanley has looked more mannequin than maestro in Iowa’s showcase games. NFL draft evaluator Todd McShay on Stanley following last year’s PSU debacle, “He’s missing middle-school throws (out there).”
Let's be clear: Nate has performed capably and, at times, exceptionally as Iowa’s QB. He has a glowing touchdown to interception ratio (62 touchdowns to 21 interceptions), two bowl victories to his name, and an uncanny ability to convert third and 22s against Iowa State. He represents the Iowa program well, always accepting blame even when Iowa’s tired offensive scheme screams culpability. And while he seems a little awkward in interviews (whenever I watch Stanley speak, Friday Night Light’s Matt Saracen immediately comes to mind), his coaches and teammates respect his work ethic, integrity, and toughness. And, for the record, so do I.
Having acknowledged Nate’s football virtues, let’s also cut to the chase: Wisconsin represents Nate’s last chance to record that signature victory--that Big Ten road conquest that propels him into rarefied QB air. And, to put it bluntly, Nate needs this one if he wants to be considered among Iowa's elite signal callers. Among his notable predecessors: CJ won in Madison; Stanzi prevailed at Penn State, at Wisconsin, and at Michigan State (7 got 6); Tate won in Happy Valley and Madison; and Banks high-stepped his way through Ann Arbor. It is not a coincidence that these Hawkeye quarterbacks--all with a significant Big Ten road scalp--are exalted among the Hawkeye faithful.
So at the risk of sounding like Stephen A. Smith, Wisconsin is Nate’s most important game of his Hawkeye career. Assuming Iowa can find a way to wrangle Albert out of Madison, the Hawks should be in good position to sweep their final three games. Yes, Minnesota is concerning, but a frothing Kinnick against a relatively untested Gopher team? Floyd shouldn't need a change of address form. Iowa should also be able to handle a respectable Illinois and a “just okay” Nebraska (Frost’s words and mine too) as well.
But if Stanley (and Iowa) flop in yet another high profile Big Ten roadie? Stanley’s narrative--that of a good QB who saves his best work for decent (read: not elite) opponents--will be firmly entrenched. His career--with a couple of mid-tier bowl victories, 55-24, and a trio of Iowa State triumphs--will be memorable but not in the Tate-Stanzi-Beathard pantheon (and sure as hell not in the Brad Banks stratosphere).
So Nate, here’s your last, best chance to add a fitting coda to your Hawkeye narrative--and paper over that brutal overthrow to T.J. Hockenson at Penn State, those sickly interceptions in Madison, and the brutal sacks in Ann Arbor. Lead Iowa to its first win over Wisconsin since 2015. Keep the Hawkeyes alive in the Big Ten West race. We may not need Go Nate Awesome to do it -- Go Nate Competent might suffice if the running game can get a toehold in the game and if the defense plays well -- but we'll definitely need Stanley's best performance in a big road game. Let's hope he can do that -- and boost his Iowa legacy in the process.