IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — No. 18 Iowa is on the current list of one-loss playoff dark horses, thanks in large part to a schedule that looks challenging yet manageable.
The Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) might also be a potential postseason team because they're just that good.
The Hawkeyes, who have followed a last-minute loss to Wisconsin by winning three in a row by an average of 22 points, head to No. 17 Penn State (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday in search of a season-defining victory.
"Everyone around here realizes the potential that we have," said senior defensive end Parker Hesse. "We can be a really good team."
The biggest reason for that is a defensive line, powered by Hesse, that might be the deepest one Ferentz has had in 20 years.
Hesse's story is classic Iowa, a once-overlooked local recruit who turned himself into a standout player with toughness and plenty of time spent in the weight room. Hesse was the star of last week's 23-0 win over Maryland, leading the charge for a defense that snuffed out the Terps' option run game with ease.
Hesse is surrounded by skilled pass rushers and potential pros like Matt Nelson, Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa, the former five-star recruit who has yet to crack the starting lineup because of how good the guys in front of him are. The Hawkeyes go eight-deep along the line, rank third in the Big Ten with 22 sacks and are fifth nationally in scoring defense at 14.1 points allowed per game.
Iowa has also been starting a pair of true freshman cornerbacks, Julius Brents and Riley Moss, who have more than held their own.
"I don't know if it's just talent or confidence," defensive lineman Sam Brincks said. "Everyone is gelling. There's not really an ego on the team. It just seems like (our) confidence has been really great. Everyone's playing together and playing hard, and when you do that it's pretty powerful."
On offense, Iowa always knew it had a potential first-round pick in tight end Noah Fant, who is tied for the FBS lead at his position with six touchdown catches. Fellow tight end T.J. Hockenson, a sophomore, might be even better than Fant in time. He has 25 catches for a team-high 424 yards and three touchdowns, including a 54-yard score in a win at Indiana.
Sophomore receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette have also blossomed into players capable of game-changing moments.
Smith has caught 14 passes for 199 yards, and he made a one-handed catch in the end zone to help Iowa put away the Terrapins. Smith-Marsette is averaging 18.2 yards a catch, including a 60-yard touchdown grab, and his 33.3-yard average on kick returns leads the Big Ten among players with at least two attempts.
Those guys have all been led by quarterback Nate Stanley, who will soon have a decision to make about whether to return for his senior season.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Stanley has thrown for 16 touchdowns, second-best in the Big Ten, against six picks. And although Stanley has thrown inexplicable interceptions in each of the last four games, his overall improvement has mirrored that of his teammates. Iowa is outscoring opponents by 16.5 points a game — a full five points better than in 2015.
"I have a lot of confidence that I can throw the ball to those guys, and that they'll be able to make a play," Stanley said.
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