Hensley: Don’t disregard the UNI game, passing attack looked sharp

Iowa’s passing game clicked for the first time this season, and that’s a huge plus moving into conference play.

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Hensley: Don’t disregard the UNI game, passing attack looked sharp

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) runs with the ball during the Iowa/UNI football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers, 38-14.

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) runs with the ball during the Iowa/UNI football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers, 38-14.

Katina Zentz

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) runs with the ball during the Iowa/UNI football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers, 38-14.

Katina Zentz

Katina Zentz

Iowa Hawkeyes tight end Noah Fant (87) runs with the ball during the Iowa/UNI football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. The Hawkeyes defeated the Panthers, 38-14.

Adam Hensley, Pregame Editor

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There are two narratives when it comes to playing Northern Iowa.

Scenario One: the Panthers beat the Hawkeyes — “Northern Iowa is much better than people give it credit for.”

Scenario Two: The Hawkeyes beat the Panthers — “It’s UNI. Iowa should have won.”

Iowa won on Sept. 15, for those living under a rock, and for the first time this season, the offense looked sharp. Yes, it’s Northern Iowa, and yes, the Hawkeyes should take care of the Panthers every time these teams face off.

But Iowa’s victory was the perfect momentum building heading into its biggest game of the season, despite it coming against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.

Wisconsin, a team light years ahead of Northern Iowa, will visit Kinnick this weekend, and while the Panther pass defense isn’t anywhere close to the level of the Badgers’, the win was a perfect opportunity to get some sort of a rhythm.

RELATED: Noah Fant holds major advantage for Hawkeye football

The Hawkeyes needed a confidence boost offensively, especially in the passing game, and that’s just what they got.

All it took was a simple introduction of Nate Stanley to his top two targets from 2017 (and it probably went something like this): “Stanley, meet Noah Fant and Nick Easley. Fant and Easley, meet Stanley.”

It seemed like a first introduction, though, as Fant and Easley had combined for merely 8 catches, 56 yards, and 1 touchdown prior to the Northern Iowa game. Against the Panthers, they caught 15 passes for 202 yards and 2 touchdowns. I’m no mathematician by any means, but that’s a big improvement.

And it was noticeable, too. The offense had yet to string together legitimate, consistent scoring drives this season, but against Northern Iowa, it was a different story. Iowa’s second, third, and fourth drives went like this:

• 10 plays, 92 yards, 4:39 time of possession.

• 12 plays, 68 yards, 5:41.

• 14 plays, 67 yards, 6:26.

Iowa had the ball for 12:11 in the first quarter against Northern Iowa. Against Iowa State, it held the ball for 5:54. In the season-opener against Northern Illinois, the Hawkeyes controlled the ball for 7:48.

RELATED: Passing game sharp in Hawkeyes’ nonconference finale

The victory over Northern Iowa marked the first time this season that the offense truly matched the defense’s production, which needed to happen at some point before Big Ten play heats up. Yes, there was some sloppiness (penalties, anyone?), but Iowa still managed to win handily in all facets of the game.

Because, as I said earlier, Wisconsin is next, and not to get ahead of myself, but the game against the Badgers will have major implications in the race for the Big Ten West Division.

Looking at how things have shaped up just in the nonconference portion of the schedule, the West is wide open. Purdue, Northwestern, and Nebraska (OK, well maybe not so much Nebraska) were all seen as teams looking to tussle for a shot at climbing the divisional ladder. Who knew that ladder was made out of paper and not wood?

Things have come crashing down so far, and while I think things will — hopefully — even out as the season goes on, one thing is clear: Any team is beatable. Wisconsin is not the mighty, untouchable beast sitting atop the preseason throne.

Now, I’m not saying that the division is Iowa’s for the taking. But a win against Wisconsin would certainly hint toward that notion, and a revamped Hawkeye offense complete with a functioning passing game makes that potential win even more tangible.