Iowa's Stanzi overcomes slow starts

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Last year against Penn State, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi displayed a pattern that could be viewed with both excitement and trepidation, depending on whom you ask.

It's a glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty kind of thing.

In the first half, Stanzi completed just two passes, fumbled once (he recovered) and took two sacks. He started the third quarter by throwing an interception that led to a Penn State field goal. Later in the quarter, he fumbled in Iowa territory, resulting in a Nittany Lions touchdown.

But with his back to the wall, Stanzi played his best down the stretch, leading Iowa to two scoring drives in the final 12 minutes as the Hawkeyes stunned third-ranked Penn State.

"Those are my Kodak moments with him," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said during the spring. "The interception against Penn State was about as ugly as you can throw. But he just came right back and played and did a good job. That’s something that’s hard to teach anybody or give anybody.

"To his credit, he really has that gene, that trait."

The gene might drive Iowa fans batty, but they're usually pleased with the end results.

Stanzi has continued the pattern this season.

He struggled in the first half of the season opener against Northern Iowa before playing better late. A week later, Stanzi threw two first-half interceptions against Iowa State before rebounding with two second-half touchdown passes in a 35-3 win.

Last week against Arizona, Stanzi had an interception returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, but he rebounded in the second half to complete 11 of 14 passes for 104 yards.

"All that matters to our offense and our team is whether we win or lose," Stanzi told reporters this week. "We realize that a football game is 60 minutes; it’s not just a half."

Stanzi is definitely aware of his first-half struggles, but he maintains a patient approach and never loses his poise.

"There’s a lot that goes into a first half; it’s not the same as a second half," he said. "It’s the first time you’re playing [the opponent]. This is new stuff. You’re not going to get the exact things you think you’re going to get sometimes. It’s not going to happen right away for you. ... Anytime you go into the halftime leading, that’s really all you can ask for. And your defense is playing so well, you’ve just got to go out there in the second half and pretend like it’s 0-0.

"With each week, we hope we can get better in the first half, but I know we’re not really too worried about it."

Neither is Ferentz, who thinks Stanzi's slow starts have been overblown, especially given his record as Iowa's starter (11-3).

Better consistency is the goal for Stanzi, but not all the early errors can be attributed to the quarterback. Take last week's game, for example. In the first quarter, Stanzi appeared to misfire badly on a pass to tight end Allen Reisner.

"I almost felt like holding up a sign in Kinnick Stadium saying, 'The receiver broke [off] the route, it wasn't Rick's fault,'" Ferentz said. "I know everybody watching was like, 'Was that Stanzi or was that the receiver?' He's in an under-scrutiny mode right now, and I guess that's part of playing quarterback."

Stanzi's resolve and ability to respond serves him well in the position, especially with games like Saturday's clash at No. 5 Penn State (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) on the horizon. A sold-out whiteout crowd will be on hand to greet Stanzi and the Hawkeyes.

But even if the offense stumbles in the first half, Stanzi can't be counted out.

"You can never get comfortable," Penn State linebacker Josh Hull said. "If you come out in the first three quarters and dominate, now all of a sudden, you relax a little bit and then man, in the fourth, he just shows up."

Hull noted that Penn State has eased up at times this season. The Lions have allowed just three first-half points in as many games and 17 points after halftime.

If Stanzi and the Hawkeyes hang tight until halftime, they should have a decent shot.

"He seems to play better as it goes on," Ferentz said. "And in a perfect world, what experience gives you is a chance to play better longer in the course of a game."