• Brian Lewerke and Nathan Stanley outdueled Trace McSorley and J.T. Barrett in the two biggest upsets of last weekend, but the Michigan State and Iowa staffs were high on their young quarterbacks before they became agents of playoff chaos. Plus, an underappreciated Kiffin, an Ole Miss backup QB stepping up and the rest of this week's college football notebook.
By Bruce Feldman
November 08, 2017

Two of the Big Ten’s pleasant surprises threw the conference’s playoff fortunes into chaos last weekend. Personality-wise, Iowa’s Nathan Stanley and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke seem like opposites, but the two sophomore quarterbacks have an advanced grasp of what defenses are trying to do to them and have pumped new life into programs that needed a jolt. 

Up until last weekend’s 55–24 rout of No. 6 Ohio State, the low-key, soft-spoken Stanley had been one of the better-kept secrets in college football. The Wisconsin native has a big arm and much better feet than you might expect from a 6' 5", 215-pound quarterback. After he lit up the Buckeyes for five touchdown passes, the word is getting out about Stanley: He has a sterling 22–4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, including 12 TDs and no picks in four games against ranked opponents this season.

Iowa coaches obviously are excited about Stanley’s physical talent but they’ve really been impressed with how well he’s adjusted in games to what is being thrown at him by rival defensive coordinators. 

“He learns very quickly,” said Iowa OC Brian Ferentz. “I get really excited about where we’re going with him.”

The charismatic Lewerke has been a revelation for the Spartans, who have the Big Ten’s youngest starting lineup with as many as 14 freshmen or sophomores on the top line of the depth chart. Earlier in the season, he caught defenses off guard with his speed, but his ability to pilot a surprisingly prolific passing attack amid Michigan State’s climbed to the top of the Big Ten East standings has been even more impressive. In the past two weeks, Lewerke has thrown for 845 yards, including a fantastic 400-yard performance to upset No. 7 Penn State in miserable conditions last Saturday. He became just the third Big Ten quarterback in the last 20 years to throw for 400 yards in two consecutive games, joining Purdue’s Drew Brees and Northwestern’s C.J. Bacher. It’s like the Air Raid came to East Lansing.

“It’s working,” Lewerke told me moments after knocking off Penn State. “The passing game’s working. The receivers are doing a great job of getting open. The O-line is doing a great job of blocking up front and I’m just trying to do my best to keep getting them the ball. As long as it’s working, we’re gonna keep doing it.”

Asked last week how someone who spent much of his childhood in Phoenix (he was born in Seattle and moved to Arizona when he was 12) had adjusted so well to playing in the elements, Lewerke pointed out that he has very big hands—he says they were measured at 10 1/4 inches. For perspective, of the 16 quarterbacks at this year’s NFL combine, only one (Sefo Liufau) had hands that measured more than 10 inches.

“He’s different than what he had here in the past,” Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner says. “He’s a more willing runner. He’s not gonna hesitate. The best threat he has is when things aren’t there and he just locks the ball away and goes with it.”

Penn State’s defensive staff had noted Lewerke’s athleticism, but the Nittany Lions’ coaches were also struck by how he looks to throw downfield as he scrambles and how well he can zip the ball in on throws to the far sideline. Two other things that have impressed Warner: Lewerke’s quick release and his temperament. “He’s about as calm and cool as they come,” Warner says. “Things just don’t rattle him.”

Lewerke also has done an outstanding job of spreading the ball around. Even though rangy junior Felton Davis has emerged as a star with eight touchdown catches through nine games, he’s one of three Spartans wideouts with 25 or more receptions. 

Mark Dantonio calls Lewerke a good combination of some of the Spartans’ best QBs from the past decade: “He’s a gunslinger like [Connor] Cook. He has [Brian] Hoyer’s confidence, Kirk [Cousins]’s well being and intelligence as a person and he’s like Drew [Stanton] as an athlete.”

This weekend both quarterbacks face another stiff challenge: Stanley and the Hawkeyes visit No. 9 Wisconsin, while Lewerke and the Spartans go to Columbus to take on No. 6 Ohio State for first place in the division.

Other Week 10 Notes

• Just how miserable has this season been for Florida State? Through eight games the Seminoles have yet to score more than 28 points even though they’ve only faced two ranked teams (Alabama and Miami). Last year, they scored more than 28 nine times. And they have yet to face the ACC’s top defense, which awaits this weekend in Clemson.

• With all the talk about Lane Kiffin’s offense, which averaged 605 yards and 56.3 points per game in October, the other Kiffin in Boca Raton isn’t getting enough credit for Florida Atlantic’s turnaround. Defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin, Lane’s younger brother, took a defense that ranked 98 in turnovers gained with just 15 last season and transformed it into the nation’s No. 1 unit, with 24 through nine games. The Owls have also gone from No. 124 in yards per play allowed (6.91) up to a respectable No. 51 (5.42).

• With Shea Patterson done for the season, Ole Miss has found a pretty good backup quarterback in Jordan Ta’amu. The junior college transfer from Hawaii by way of New Mexico Military Institute shredded Kentucky in a 37–34 win where he completed a school-record 78% of his passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns. Rebels offensive coordinator Phil Longo said Ta’amu reminds him of a star QB from Longo’s days at Sam Houston State, Jeremiah Briscoe, who threw 57 touchdown passes last season. “He is poised like Briscoe was,” Longo says. “He is decisive and he pushes the tempo of the offense effectively.” If the Rebels can find a way to win two of their final three games (home against Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas A&M before the Egg Bowl in Starkville), a 6–6 season amid everything this team has dealt with would be pretty respectable.

• Stat of the Week: Baker Mayfield threw for 598 yards at Oklahoma State, and while many people will dismiss that as a byproduct of the quality of Big 12 defenses, keep in mind that the Cowboys had held seven of their previous eight opponents to fewer than 300 yards passing. Mayfield will face his toughest test yet this Saturday when TCU visits Norman: Opposing QBs are completing just 49.1% of their passes against Gary Patterson’s defense. The average completion percentage against the other nine Big 12 defenses is 62.1%.

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