EAST LANSING, Mich. - We all knew this would be a possibility when Kirk Ferentz handed Ricky Stanzi the keys to the offense, The sophomore has given but also taken away.
Stanzi moved the Hawkeyes up and down the field in a 16-13 loss here against Michigan State. He connected on another bomb to Andy Brodell for a touchdown. He also turned the ball over three times, making it five giveaways in the last two weeks.
"Everybody was clamoring for him," Ferentz said with a chuckle when asked about Stanzi's learning curve. "And I'm not arguing that. But that's part of the deal. I'm not pinning this on Rick, either. If anybody wants to, that's silly. But that's a factor. That's the downside of youth. That's the downside of inexperience."
Ferentz is right. Stanzi has plenty of company in Iowa losing the last three games by a total of three points. Blocked punts, missed field goals, untimely penalties and a variety of other mental errors factor into a 3-3 team with an 0-2 start in the Big Ten.
"Ironically, I don't think there's any comparison between this team and last year's team," Ferentz said. "But ironically, the thing we did last year was take care of the ball. We couldn't move it, but we took care of it. That's the next step for us."
Trust me, if displaced starting quarterback Jake Christensen turned the ball over five times in the last two weeks, the Hawkeye Nation message boards would short circuit with venom spewing fans. But the guy doing it now is the one the majority of the fan base wanted under center.
It really has been a catch-22. Christensen probably wouldn't have turned the ball over three times based on his ability to limit giveaways last year. But, from what we saw last year and the beginning of this year, he also would have been less likely to move the team the way Stanzi did the last two weeks.
We're seeing now why Ferentz's gut stuck with Christensen at Pittsburgh. He wanted to see if his veteran could generate enough offense to win while protecting the ball. He couldn't and the coach was faced with a decision that would shape the future of this team.
The formula of having a quarterback manage a game and let the defense win it wasn't going to work. All it managed to do was wear ourtthe defense.
So, Ferentz went against his gut to play the young player more prone to mistakes while fully understanding that those errors could be costly.
For the second week in a row, Stanzi marched his team down the field on its opening offensive possession. And for the second consecutive time, he fumbled deep in the opponent's territory. Yes, plenty of time remained in both contests to make up for it, but halfway through the season we realize that this team can‘t overcome the handful of mistakes it makes weekly.
Stanzi committed two of the team's five turnovers in a 22-17 loss against Northwestern last week. The Hawkeyes talked about cleaning it up heading to Michigan State. They did. The quarterback didn't.
Again, you don't lay Saturday's loss at Stanzi's feet. He didn't get any game reps last season and split them for the first four games of this campaign. He's now moved into on-the-job training.
"He's shown the ability to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball and put it where it has to be put," Ferentz said. "He did a good job with awareness; run game, pass game, those sorts of things. We're seeing growth there."
But can he mature enough to help turn this thing around? Iowa at 3-3 likely needs to win four of it's last six games to avoid missing the postseason for a second year in a row.
"I don't like to blame it on inexperience," Stanzi said. "I know what I should be doing. I'm conscious of when a mistake is being made. But it's just being more aware of the situations you're in and knowing where people are on the field and what can hurt you and making the right decisions off of that. Reacting instead of thinking is a lot of it."
Stanzi wasn't going to look for an excuse, but in describing what he needs to do to be more efficient, he unveils things that will improve with more game time. On Saturday, you could see him looking for a defensive end dropping into zone coverage a few times after having one picked off like that last week.
On a third and long play deep in MSU territory late in the first half, Stanzi checked to the running play that went for long yardage when Christensen changed to it against Iowa State. It worked then. Saturday, it came up short and resulted in a field goal instead of a shot at the end zone.
Stanzi's first-half turnovers also led to the coaches being conservative with him in the third quarter. He threw just two passes.
The silver lining in all of this is that Stanzi is getting better. His easy-going temperament will allow him to move past these growing pains. He also doesn't sidestep the blame even when his teammates and coach realize that he isn't the only one who made costly mistakes in Saturday's setback.
"My teammates might say that, but I'll still put it on my shoulders," Stanzi said. "I mean, there's nowhere else to look. You turn it over three times how are you suppose to \help your offense get momentum. You've got the O-line up there just busting their butts. Shonn (Greene) is running the ball great. I'm missing passes that are easy and fumbling the ball."
Making yourself accountable goes a long way with your teammates. Stanzi gets it. He has this thing in perspective.
"He never lost his composure out there," said Brodell, who for a second week in a row hauled in a long scoring pass from Stanzi. "That's why he's playing. He put himself in position to be a starter and he's definitely taken the role well.
"He's a first-year quarterback. There's going to be a little bit of a learning curve. We're not giving up on him by any means. He goes out there every series and gives it his all. He's pretty calm and collected and I don't think he's going to let these last couple of games affect him."
He can't if he wants to make his first season as a starter one that ends in a postseason bid.