IOWA CITY, Iowa – Ricky Stanzi's career has been a mix of inconsistency, interceptions and incredible comebacks.
These days, Iowa's senior quarterback is looking a lot less dramatic — and a lot more productive.
Stanzi is 66 of 99 passing for 999 yards and nine touchdowns so far this season and he's thrown just one interception after 15 a year ago. Stanzi now ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency, a sign that the fifth-year senior has blossomed into an experienced, well-rounded quarterback.
"A lot of it has to do with not trying to force it. If something doesn't look right, trust your instincts," Stanzi said. "Just because you practiced it doesn't mean you have to throw it," Stanzi said.
It took years for Stanzi to put such patience into practice.
With No. 17 Iowa (3-1) preparing for its Big Ten opener at home against Penn State (3-1) Saturday night, the play of its quarterback is no longer the question mark it once was.
Though Stanzi led the Hawkeyes to their first BCS bowl win in 2009, he completed just 56.3 percent of his passes. The Hawkeyes were just 86th nationally in scoring last year, often having to survive close games because they simply couldn't score enough.
Stanzi's transformation into a more steady, accurate quarterback began during preparations for last season's Orange Bowl after he missed the final two games of the regular season because of an ankle injury.
Stanzi threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-14 win over Georgia Tech, and he's followed it up with four good starts in a row.
Stanzi was 18 of 23 passing for 229 yards and a touchdown in an easy win over Eastern Illinois, and threw for 204 yards and scored three touchdowns, including one on the ground, in a 35-7 blowout of Iowa State.
"I think he's enjoying the luxury of being an experienced player. He's always been very committed, worked extremely hard. He's off to a real good start," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Iowa stumbled in a 34-27 loss at Arizona, and Stanzi threw an interception that was returned 85 yards for a touchdown. But that ball went right through the hands of the usually dependable Marvin McNutt, and Stanzi did all he could to will the Hawkeyes back into the game.
Forced to air it out after the Hawkeyes fell behind 21-7, Stanzi threw three touchdown passes to help bring Iowa even midway through the fourth quarter.
In last week's 45-0 win over Ball State, Stanzi was as good as he's ever been.
Stanzi shook off a driving rain and completed 19 of 25 passes — including a few drops by his receivers — for 288 yards and three touchdowns.
In Iowa's three wins, Stanzi has started so well that he hasn't had to dig himself out of the holes he used to put the Hawkeyes in.
"Doing less has almost been doing more for us at times. Not trying to convert every third down just because you feel you have to, and understand that it's O.K. to punt," Stanzi said. "Either score or punt."
Ferentz has indicated that the Hawkeyes plan to attack opponents down the field more often to try to free up their running game. Iowa is down to its last running back with significant experience in sophomore Adam Robinson, and they'll likely lean on Stanzi more than ever in Big Ten play.
The first test comes against the Nittany Lions, a team that's given Stanzi trouble. Though he led the Hawkeyes on a game-winning drive in 2008 in one of the more memorable moments of his career, he was just 11 of 26 passing for 135 yards and two picks in Iowa's 21-10 win at Penn State last season.
He's gotten a lot better," Penn State defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu said. "He looks more poised this year. He doesn't throw the ball as careless as he used to, he makes quick decisions. He's really a field general."
(This version CORRECTS typo in 4th paragraph, 'look' instead of 'like.')