IOWA CITY — The last person who would suggest Saturday’s game at Wisconsin is about any sort of personal redemption or validation for Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley is Stanley himself.
He is no me-guy. He uses a thumb to grip a football, not point at himself. This is a college student who has woodworking as a hobby, who prefers ice fishing to websurfing. This is a one-game-at-a-time, every-game-matters prototype, a player who suppresses what little emotion he doesn’t hide altogether.
Yet, Stanley admits his nerves sort of jumped around and Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium was a House of Pain for him two years ago.
It was his first college game in his Wisconsin home state, a week after Iowa’s stunning 55-24 home thumping of Ohio State. The Hawkeyes went to Madison and were the thumpees instead of the thumpers.
The Badgers won, 38-14. Iowa’s two touchdowns came on Josh Jackson interception returns. The Hawkeyes’ offense was overwhelmed, totaling a mere 66 yards. Then-sophomore Stanley completed just 8 of 24 passes for 41 yards, was sacked four times, and directed an offense that converted none of its 13 third-down situations.
“Obviously, very nervous,” Stanley said this week when asked about that day, “not really knowing what to expect as far as the environment.
“I think I put too much pressure on myself for that game. I think now I just know if I do my part, my teammates are going to do their part, too.”
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Several dozen hometown friends and family members were there two Novembers ago. They’ll be back Saturday to see a game that arguably could be called Stanley’s most-important as a Hawkeye. If Iowa wins, it stays in the Big Ten West Division title hunt. If it loses, it almost surely means Stanley will go through his college career without playing in a league championship game.
Calling Saturday a defining day for a quarterback with 62 touchdown passes and 23 victories that include a pair of bowl games would be silly. Nonetheless, this will be a game Stanley will forever remember, for better or worse.
“I’m sure people from my hometown had their tickets a while ago for this game,” Stanley said, “or they’re friends I went to high school with that go to school (in Madison) now.”
Stanley is a son of Wisconsin, but has Iowa in his bloodstream. His parents, Donita and Jay Stanley, are graduates of Wartburg College. Donita is from Wellsburg in north-central Iowa. Jay is from Rock Falls, Ill., 45 minutes from the Iowa border. So when it came time to pick a college, it wasn’t as if Stanley came from generations of Badgers.
Stanley played at Menomonie High for Joe LaBuda, who enters the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame next year. This year, LaBuda led Menomonie, a school of about 1,000 students, to the state playoffs for the 30th-straight year.
In 2015, Stanley was a senior quarterback/defensive back/punter for LaBuda’s Mustangs. Classmate Mason Stokke was a running back/linebacker. Stokke rushed for 1,740 yards. Stanley passed for 1,728.
Iowa got a commitment from Stanley in the fall of 2014. He had a passing arm and touch seldom seen in high school, but was happy being part of a perfectly balanced attack.
“In our conference, (Stokke) was the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year,” Stanley said. “He either was the Offensive or Defensive Player of the Year (Defensive) in the state, I can’t remember which. Very talented.”
Stokke is a redshirt junior at Wisconsin. He switched from linebacker to fullback there. He has started two games this season and shares playing time at that position, an important one in the Badgers’ power offense. He and Stanley grew up on a gridiron.
“Mason and I were ‘little managers’ for the varsity football team from the time we were in kindergarten, really,” Stanley said.
“We would help the team however we could, whether filling water bottles, dragging bags around at practice, whatever. When we had free time during practice, we would be on the sideline playing tackle football ourselves.”
“We go way back,” Stokke said this week. “My dad and his dad were both coaches. We always went to each other’s houses, hanging out. We both have older brothers who played college football, mine at Mankato and his at North Dakota.
“We were kind of born into it.”
Stanley could have been a scholarship athlete in basketball or baseball. He is Menomonie’s all-time leading basketball scorer and was a four-year baseball starter. After his senior season, he was given the Pat Richter Award as the top senior three-sport male athlete in Wisconsin. His favorite sport, he said this week, was “whatever season it was.”
“There’s nothing like lining up on a Friday night, playing football with your friends. There’s nothing like hitting a game-winning shot or free throw in basketball. There’s nothing like being up on the mound, one versus one against the hitter.
“Whatever I was doing at that moment, that’s what I wanted to do. I just wanted to help my team really be successful and do that any way I could.”
Early in his high school days, Stanley decided football would be his college sport.
“I told my basketball and baseball coaches that if somebody reaches out, tell them not to waste their time,” he said. “I don’t want to waste anybody’s time.”
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“He’s had a great career and I’m not surprised,” LaBuda said. “He’s always been a very motivated young man with super-high character. His work ethic was second to none. I think he’ll be a great NFL prospect.
“He had a big arm even when he was young. But had he not been a quarterback, he could have been recruited as a punter. When he was a freshman he punted on the varsity.”
Current Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst was in on Stanley early. When he was Pittsburgh’s coach, Chryst tried to recruit Stanley to play there. Iowa won out, though, getting Stanley’s verbal commitment in the fall of 2014. Chryst took the Badgers job later that year and checked to see if Stanley had any interest in switching to Wisconsin.
“He’s a great guy,” Stanley said of Chryst. “He really gave me my first opportunity to see what college football was all about. But when he went back to Wisconsin I had already made up my mind. I was extremely happy with my decision.”
It’s the senior Stanley, not the sophomore, who will try to propel the Hawkeyes in Camp Randall. The opponent, environment and challenge remain formidable. There again will be all those hometown eyes upon him. “Unwavering supporters,” Stanley calls them.
Sentimentality can come after Saturday’s game when Stanley meets up with his hometown people. During the contest, though, Wisconsin’s defense and fans will be hostile toward him. If he helps the Hawkeyes overcome both? The fisherman will have landed a big one.
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