Iowa Football

Iowa 38, Northern Iowa 14: Bull or the horns next week

Iowa's players in its passing game showed up, flexed and took the second half off

IOWA CITY — Yes, Wisconsin lost. It doesn’t matter.

The Badgers and Hawkeyes play in the Big Ten West. Both of those teams remain 0-0 in the league, even after the Badgers were played off their feet by BYU in Madison.

The Hawkeyes took care of their business.

Iowa (3-0) scored on touchdown drives of 92, 68 and 67 in three of its first four possessions and that was that before 69,250 fans Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.

Quarterback Nate Stanley answered questions, finishing 23 of 28 for 309 yards, two TDs and a pick. It was the second 300-plus game of his career, with ISU last season being the other. Tight end Noah Fant was himself, with 99 yards of receptions in the first half. Wide receiver Nick Easley did his thing, catching 10 passes and moving the chains.

It was all more than enough for the Hawkeyes, who put away the Panthers, 38-14.

OK, time for the Heartland Trophy game (7:30 p.m. next week on Fox). For those who only know Iowa’s rivalry trophies by farm animal, it’s the bull trophy.

Iowa, which moved to 3-0 for the eighth time under head coach Kirk Ferentz, went into this with questions on offense. Stanley and Fant were among those questions. Stanley’s numbers said he was the No. 13 QB in the Big Ten. Fant’s postgames have been about the things he’s liked the least about his game.

The questions were very different for these two Saturday night.

Stanley started off the scoring with a 5-yard TD pass to Fant, their 13th TD hookup in the last 15 games. It was his 14th career TD reception, giving the junior from Omaha, Neb., the record for TD receptions by an Iowa TE. Coincidentally, Fant passed Cedar Falls native Mike Flagg for that record. Of course, UNI (0-2) is in Cedar Falls.

Stanley hit Fant for a 43-yard gain to the Panthers’ 8-yard line to set up that score.

The 92-yard scoring drive was Iowa’s longest this season for yardage. It was also Iowa’s initial first-half touchdown of 2018.

And, yes, it looked good and it felt good.

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“Honestly, we just listened to our coaches,” Fant said. “They were telling us the whole time to just keep grinding and things will come. It ended up breaking open a little bit tonight. Hopefully, we can get it even more open than that. Definitely progress, but definitely want to be better.”

Stanley and Fant also fueled Iowa’s next scoring drive. This time, Iowa kicked into a little bit of a hurry-up offense. On second down, Stanley hit Fant for a 19-yard gain. On the next play, Northern Iowa lost track of Fant. Stanley hit him for a 29-yard gain.

Running back Mekhi Sargent finished the drive with a 2-yard plunge and Iowa held a 14-0 lead with 14:09 left in the second quarter. Sargent, the sophomore juco transfer from Iowa Western, finished with 120 total yards (72 rushing) and two TDs.

“I’ve kind of been saying over the last couple weeks that we have seen him during camp really start to get warmed up, now it’s good to see that go to Kinnick,” Ferentz said. “But I thought he really played well tonight and he’s a really tough, he’s kind of a deceptive guy, he’s a little tougher than you might give him credit for. He breaks tackles and if you don’t get him down, he’ll keep going.”

Fant is the last Iowa receiver to go above 100 yards, with 116 last year at Nebraska. In the first half Saturday night, Fant had five catches for 99 yards.

With Stanley at QB, Iowa is 8-2 at Kinnick Stadium, including 7-0 in non-conference. Through three quarters Saturday night, Stanley now has 20 TDs to just 6 interceptions to go along with 1,935 yards at Kinnick Stadium.

“Just go about our business and take advantage of what they give us,” Stanley said. “They left him open a couple of times today.”

Easley was on a limited snap count in the first few weeks. The senior also rebounded in the first half against UNI, catching six passes for 67 yards. He got Iowa’s third TD drive off the dock, catching a pair of passes for 17 yards. After the Hawkeyes converted a fourth-and-1 at UNI’s 45, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called heavy personnel, going with a fullback on four consecutive carries and then going with three tight ends for three straight plays.

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“I’m just proud of the way we came out with energy as a team tonight from the get-go,” Easley said. “There are things we have to clean up, but we did some really good things tonight.”

Sargent finished this one with a 10-yard rush right through the middle of the Panthers’ defense.

Midway through the third quarter, Easley and Stanley hooked up for a 14-yard TD pass, taking advantage of a forced fumble by free safety Jake Gervase, for a 31-0 lead with 7:03 left in the third quarter.

After leading the Hawkeyes with 51 catches last season, Easley went into Iowa’s third game Saturday night with just one catch. Through three quarters, Easley had 10 catches for 103 yards and the TD.

The Hawkeyes finished with 207 yards and three rushing TDs on 50 carries (most since 59 vs. North Texas last season). Iowa’s 545 total yards is the most since 587 in a win at Illinois in 2014.

“I was disappointed we gave up so many yards rushing. That’s not us,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “Iowa is very good, they’ve got a chance to be a great team. But I will say I’m disappointed in our team because we didn’t play at the line of scrimmage the way we wanted to and could have. That’s something we’re going to go home and look at, try to improve on.”

The Panthers (0-2) rode the bus to Iowa City on the day of the game. With a 6:30 p.m. kickoff, it made sense.

The ride home probably did feel a little longer.

UNI was held to minus-2 rushing yards in the first half and just 20 yards overall. The Hawkeyes ran 50 first-half plays to UNI’s 20. The Hawkeyes haven’t surrendered a first-half touchdown this season.

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UNI finished with 6 rushing yards, the second-lowest number in Ferentz’s 20 years (minus-13 vs. Kent State in 2004).

So, the stakes go up this week.

Yes, Wisconsin (2-1) will come in with a blemish. BYU beat the Badgers with speed and big plays. The Cougars also managed the behemoth Badgers running game. UW rushed 43 times for 204 yards, which is very Badger-y. BYU rushed 198 yards on 28 carries, so it was “right back at you, Wisconsin.”

What did you learn about the Hawkeyes against UNI?

Stanley and Fant were Iowa’s best offensive players for a lot of last season. Saturday night, those two had that sophomore year mojo going. Easley clocked in with his most complete effort of 2018. Easley is the first Hawkeye to log 10 receptions in a game since Keenan Davis had 10 against Pitt in 2011.

The Hawkeyes’ defense has been ready for Wisconsin since June. Late in the third quarter Saturday night, the Panthers had minus-3 rushing yards.

But Iowa and Wisconsin are 0-0 in the Big Ten West. Someone’s getting the bull and someone’s getting the horns next Saturday night in Kinnick.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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