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Matchup to Watch: Spencer Petras vs. Penn State’s pass defense

Will the sophomore Hawkeye continue to lock onto targets against the 0-4 Nittany Lions?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll use this space to briefly recap last week’s matchup to watch before heading to the this weeks.

Week 1: Rondale Moore vs. the CASH
Week 2: Isaiah Bowser vs. Iowa’s LBs
Week 3: Iowa’s WRs vs MSU’s CBs
Week 4: Iowa’s rushing attack vs. Minnesota’s LBs

To say Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent, etc. ran the ball effectively undersells their performance against Minnesota. Goodson had 142 yards on 20 carries for a cool 7.1 yards-per with two touchdowns. Sargent had 9 for 86 (9.6 YPC) and a touchdown of his own.

Iowa even converted touchdowns the couple of unique ways at the goal line after showing the look over the last couple weeks with the Wildcat (welcome to 2008!)...

...and the end around to Nico Ragaini.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s singular rush went for negative six yards. Can’t win them all!


While the Iowa Hawkeyes (2-2) and Penn State Nittany Lions (0-4) both began the season with two losses, the Hawks have since found their groove against two overmatched opponents while PSU have done the opposite. There is a much different feeling in both camps but James Franklin assures us he has a singular focus ahead of this week.

And why wouldn’t he? The Hawks look to be the best team remaining on their schedule which includes Michigan, Rutgers, and Michigan State - three teams who have a combined one (1) win outside of games played amongst them. Even though he sports a 4-0 record against Iowa, he had a lopsided 12-1 record against three of their prior four opponents ahead of losses to each of IU, Maryland, & Nebraska which did not portend to a Nittany Lion victory.

The easiest path to a victory is to make life difficult for Iowa’s first-year starting quarterback, Spencer Petras. Petras enters the game a 53% passer on the season (12th in conference) averaging 5.7 yards per attempt (11th). If there’s a positive from his four interceptions, it’s that they have come from 134 attempts (third), for an interception rate of 3.0% (fifth lowest).

His worst game was against Northwestern where he threw three of his four interceptions. In two of them, he locked onto his target over the middle (Sam LaPorta) and fired in a pass which bounced into the hands of a defender.


While they were completable opportunities, both were into highly covered areas with little pass rush forcing the throw.

One area Brian Ferentz can help Petras out, is by helping Iowa stay on schedule. Iowa’s scripted plays have been fantastic throughout much of this season when examining the NW play-by-play, it’s clear it was largely driven by balanced first down playcalling:

1st quarter - 5 passes (5/5, 50 yards, 1 TD) / 5 rushes (18 yards, 1 TD)
2nd quarter - 7 passes (2/7, 31 yards) / 0 rushes
3rd quarter - 4 passes (1/4, 18 yards, 1 INT) / 1 rush (-2 yards)
4th quarter - 7 passes (3/7, 15 yards, 1 INT) / 3 rushes (19 yards)

Total - 23 passes / 9 rushes

This is indicative of the broader dedication to the pass Iowa fell into and may be susceptible to again. The Hawks held a lead throughout much of the second and third quarters yet rarely tried to establish the early in drives. This increased the burden on Petras unnecessarily.

If Iowa is going to use the pass to open up the run on first downs - a fair assessment so Penn State does not over-index on predictable playcalling - Iowa should lean on passes inside of 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, where Petras is a 70% passer and reads are quicker and, hopefully easier. When Iowa’s routes extend past 5 yards, he reverts to a 40% thrower.

The reason this is important is Penn State is incredibly susceptible via the air. They’ve allowed 7.9 yards/attempt on 66.7% passing. Nine of the 15 touchdowns they’ve allowed have come through the air, including all three by Maryland which exceeded 30 yards, though only one travelled that far:

Maryland built their lead by leaning on yards after the catch with precise short throws. In fact, their first two touchdowns resemble perhaps Petras’ best pass from the Minnesota game, a slant to Tyrone Tracy:

Spencer Petras is a capable quarterback. Ken O’Keefe and the Ferentzi would not have recruited him to Iowa City if that were not the case. Iowa has failed Petras in developing a 60-minute gameplan on the shoulders of his skills.

Against Penn State, it is incredibly important for Iowa to lean into what Petras has shown he can execute - well-schemed, quick throws near the line of scrimmage - and let his cadre of skill players do the rest of the work. Penn State has shown they are susceptible to yards after the catch and Iowa has guys who can rack them up.

Should Iowa allow the Nittany Lions to dictate what Iowa can and cannot do, making them predictable, it will make everyone’s job more difficult and result in the defensive-oriented game we have come to expect against them.

While that style of game may give Iowa a chance at the W, each of the last three contests have gone the other way. Another loss would chip away at much of the goodwill built over the last two games.