Rutgers Iowa Football

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent (left) and quarterback Nate Stanley (right) congratulate wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette after his touchdown during the first half of Saturday’s game against Rutgers in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY — It was the earliest Big Ten Conference opener ever for the University of Iowa.

It looked like just another creampuff non-conference romp.

Nate Stanley threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns, taking over sole possession of third place on the Hawkeyes’ career touchdown chart, and No. 20-ranked Iowa blanked Rutgers, 30-0, on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Stanley entered the day just one touchdown pass behind Ricky Stanzi for third on the all-time list and needed less than 3 minutes of game time to draw even, connecting with Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a 58-yard touchdown — the 56th of Stanley’s career.

It was the second consecutive three-touchdown game for Stanley, who now has 58 TD passes and needs three more to tie Drew Tate (61) for second all-time. Chuck Long owns the record with 74 career touchdown passes.

“It’s awesome to be in that position, but I think it just comes back to the offensive line,” Stanley said. “They gave me plenty of time today.”

It was the seventh consecutive game Stanley has thrown a TD pass, his 16th career multi-touchdown game and his 10th game with at least three touchdowns. Long had 11 career three-TD games.

“He’s playing at a very high level,” said Smith-Marsette, who added a 23-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter and finished with four receptions for 113 yards. “He’s spreading the ball around to a lot of different receivers. Stanley is just on another level. He is telling us what he wants and we are coming through and executing.

Stanley completed 16 of 28 passes and also threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Tyrone Tracy.

Eight different receivers caught a pass for Iowa (2-0, 1-0 Big Ten), which outgained Rutgers, 438-125. The Hawkeyes allowed just 41 yards through the air, the second-fewest passing yards allowed by a Kirk Ferentz-coached team. Only Georgia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl passed for fewer yards.

“Our guys really played well defensively today and it was a collective effort,” Ferentz said. “The passing part, we disrupted their quarterback. Part of it is because we were covering really well, so he didn’t have a place to go with the ball.”

After going without a sack in the season opener, reigning Big Ten Conference sack king A.J. Epenesa recorded his first of the season and added four QB hits, including one that led to Djimon Colbert’s interception.

Michael Ojemudia also picked off a pass, and Noah Shannon recovered a fumble.

“We’re happy about the way we played today, but we’re not satisfied,” Epenesa said. “You’re never satisfied when you want to be great as a defense. It was definitely a step up from last week. That’s all we care about. That’s all we wanted to do was to improve from Week 1 to Week 2.”

About the only phase that Rutgers (1-1, 0-1) shined in was special teams. Specifically, the punting game.

Seven of Adam Korsak’s 10 punts were downed inside the Iowa 20, and each of his first four pinned Iowa inside its own 11. Seven of the Hawkeyes’ 14 possessions began inside their own 20-yard line, five inside the 10, and three inside the 3-yard line.

“It’s definitely tough, but it’s something we worked on in camp and practice all the time, so a couple times we were able to move the ball out of there,” said running back Toren Young, who ran for 59 yards on nine carries. “We want to do a better job of that, but it definitely makes it challenging.”

Mekhi Sargent added 59 rushing yards on 13 carries for Iowa, and reserve Tyler Goodson chipped in 53 yards on 10 carries.

Stanley engineered an 11-play, 97-yard drive early in the second quarter, starting the possession with a 9-yard QB sneak up the middle, continuing it with another sneak on fourth down just inside the Iowa 45, and capping it with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Tracy.

Keith Duncan added a career-long 46-yard field goal with 3:50 left in the half, but clock mismanagement in the final 30 seconds of the second quarter shortchanged a prime scoring opportunity, and the Hawkeyes settled for a 19-yard field goal that sent Iowa to the locker room with a 20-0 lead.

Stanley hooked up with Smith-Marsette for another touchdown late in the third quarter, this one for 33 yards, as Iowa took a 27-0 lead into the final period. Duncan tacked on a 43-yard field goal with 11:05 to play.

“Give the credit to Iowa, they played a really good football game,” said Rutgers coach Chris Ash, a native of Ottumwa, Iowa. “We knew it was going to be a challenge. They are very strong up front and they play very well here at home. But I thought we would have some opportunities to make some more plays, get some more yards and earn more points.”

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