Nate Stanley shrugged off the struggles of the Iowa offense.
“We want to continue to grow,” the Hawkeyes’ quarterback said after Saturday’s 13-3 win over Iowa State at Kinnick Stadium. “But at the end of the day, a win’s a win. You can’t complain with 2-0.”
No, you can’t. Nor should you be concerned.
It is, after all, two games. You can argue that Iowa’s offense didn’t improve from Game 1 to Game 2, that early-season step that coaches always talk about wanting.
But let’s look at 2-0 in a different way.
Iowa defeated a Northern Illinois team in the opener that was considered to be a Mid-American Conference title contender. The 33-7 win was second-half domination, a thorough grind-it-out win.
Saturday’s victory was over the Cyclones, who have an experienced defense that gave the Hawkeyes fits all day until Iowa made just enough fourth-quarter plays to win.
Iowa’s offense ranks 112th out of 128 NCAA Division I teams after two weeks. If you want to go deeper into the statistics, the Hawkeyes rank 112th in first downs, 60th in third-down conversion percentage, 99th in pass completion percentage, 93rd in scoring offense, 115th in team passing efficiency, 111th in passing offense and 80th in rushing offense.
But … 2-0.
“We want things to be better than they are,” said tight end Noah Fant, who has created some of his own struggles while defenses keying on him have created the rest. “All we can do is keep working at it. I feel like it was better than last Saturday.”
So here are some things to consider heading into this week’s game against Northern Iowa:
• Don’t worry about Stanley. Stanley’s pass efficiency number is 100.62. He has completed 52.9 percent of his passes, and has one touchdown pass against one interception.
But look at two passes from Saturday — the 45-yarder to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on Iowa’s second possession of the second half that led to the go-ahead field goal, and the 30-yarder to Brandon Smith in the fourth quarter that led to the game-clinching touchdown run by Mekhi Sargent. Those are passes that show he has improved from last season.
His numbers will get better.
• Don’t worry about Fant. Sure, he’s dropped a few passes that he should have had. But he also has seven catches for 41 yards and a touchdown this season.
He is too much of a mismatch for defenses. And those drops will eventually turn into catches.
• We haven’t seen much of the wide receivers. Smith-Marsette has four catches to lead that position group. Smith finally got his first catch of the season. And Nick Easley, so good last season, has just one catch in the first two games.
They’ll have to become more of a factor.
• A stacked box. It seemed like Iowa’s running game was being controlled by the Iowa State defense, but the Hawkeyes did get 105 rushing yards on Saturday.
Toren Young is starting to show signs of becoming a lead back, but once Ivory Kelly-Martin returns from his ankle injury, this is a deep backfield.
Once Stanley and his receivers begin working together, that should open things up for the running game.
The numbers don’t look good.
But 2-0 does, and that’s all that matters at this point.
“It makes you think if we can get the offense going in the right direction —and I do think we’re going in the right direction — it could be something that could be pretty special,” Fant said.
THE EPENESA EMERGENCE
A.J. Epenesa is a sophomore who already has three sacks this season.
“Yeah, he’s a freak,” defensive tackle Matt Nelson said of Epenesa, a sophomore defensive end.
He is, but he is still learning the position. There is a clamor for him to get him on the field more, but Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sees the little things.
Epenesa’s playing time will continue to grow as long as he continues to improve. And Ferentz is seeing that improvement.
“Nobody has had more hype, I think, in the last 19-plus years than A.J. coming in here. And I get that. He's a really good player, good prospect, great kid. But last year he was learning how to play, too. He's thinking about six things at once, and you can't do that. It would be like me trying to golf 30 years ago, you just can't do that.
“So what I saw from where I was standing today was a guy playing fast. He had some purpose, and wasn't overthinking this stuff. You've got good attributes, you don't have to be the smartest guy, just go. But he was trying to do too much last year. And the last two weeks, especially today, it looked like he had a little more purpose and was a little more efficient with his intent and the way he was playing.”
• Iowa’s defensive line is continuing to dominate. The Hawkeyes rank seventh in rushing defense so far, and the way they controlled Iowa State’s David Montgomery was impressive, considering Montgomery’s talent. Iowa has nine sacks in two games, second most among Division I teams.
• The linebackers are just fine. Jack Hockaday leads the Hawkeyes with 13 tackles. Nick Niemann is an emerging star, and he has 11 tackles and one sack. Watch the emergence of Djimon Colbert.
• Kinnick is louder with the closed-in north end zone.
• After next Saturday, when UNI comes to Iowa City, all three of Iowa’s Division I football teams will have waved to the kids and the families at the Stead Family Children’s Hospital across the street from Kinnick Stadium. A year later, the end-of-the-first-quarter wave is still an emotional moment. And it always will be.