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By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett came to Kinnick Stadium as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate Saturday. But on this day, he wasn’t the best quarterback on the field.
Iowa sophomore Nathan Stanley outplayed Barrett in the Hawkeyes’ 55-24 upset of the nation’s third-ranked team. Stanley completed 20-of-31 passes for 226 yards and matched a career-high with five touchdowns.
“I think you play best when you’re having fun,” Stanley said. “I’m not saying I haven’t had fun. I’ve had a great time all year, but when you can just go out and play and not worry about pressure or the circumstances around you, that’s when you can come out an excel.”
Barrett came into the game with one interception all season, in a game against Oklahoma on Sept. 9. Barrett threw three touchdown passes Saturday, but was picked off four times.
Stanley’s longest completion of the game came on a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Noah Fant in the second quarter. But he was accurate and efficient all game, and was only sacked once.
Stanley’s big game was a testament to his growing confidence and experience and a solid game turned in by Iowa’s improving offensive line.
“I think we blocked for the first time like you need to if you’re going to be on the varsity,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
That offensive line includes freshmen tackles Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson, forced into action after injuries to seniors Ike Boettger and Boone Myers. Senior guard Sean Welsh and junior center James Daniels, both Ohio natives, have kept that line together.
“I think as the year has gone on I feel more comfortable in the pocket, and I had trust in the offensive line,” Stanley said. “The past couple of weeks they’ve had great practices. That builds confidence, too. They did a great job.”
Stanley has been calm in the eye of the storm all season.
“He’s always like that,” Daniels said. “Even when he throws an interception, I haven’t seen his attitude change. His personality is a calm person. I really like that.”
Iowa’s progress as a football team has been slower than Ferentz has wanted this season. But Saturday was a big step forward, for both the bowl-eligible Hawkeyes and Stanley.
“He’s done a lot of good things this year, and had some tough plays like anybody who plays quarterback is going to do,” Ferentz said. “But he just keeps coming back and did a lot of good things today against really good competition. That was impressive.”
Ferentz said his favorite play came late in the third quarter. Stanley, with a defender clinging to his leg, was able to get the ball to tight end T.J. Hockenson for a 2-yard touchdown pass that gave Iowa an insurmountable 38-17 lead.
“The way he’s playing right now, I’m really proud of the way he has grown and developed,” Ferentz said.
On the touchdown pass to Hockenson that Ferentz mentioned, Stanley said, “Sometimes you have to make plays when they’re necessary. T.J. made a great adjustment.”
Stanley, who emerged from a tight battle with Tyler Wiegers for the starting quarterback job late in fall camp, also threw five touchdown passes at Iowa State earlier this season. On Saturday, he became the second player in Hawkeye history to throw five touchdown passes twice in the same season. Chuck Long had a pair of six-touchdown passes games.
Stanley now has 22 touchdown passes to four interceptions this season. He has completed 151-of-129 passes for 1,929 yards as a first-year starter. He is the first Iowa quarterback to throw 20 or more touchdown passes in a season since James Vandenberg threw for 25 in 2011.
Iowa entered the game as a three-touchdown underdog against a team that still had hopes of a playoff berth. Stanley and his teammates dashed that with four quarters of inspired play.
“Nobody outside of our football complex and our fans thought we had a chance,” Stanley said. “Just being able to go out and play without any repercussions or people talking negatively about it allowed us to come out and play to the best of our abilities today.”