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Iowa Must Improve its Passing Game to Compete for Conference Championships

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Despite having a talented team, poor production from the passing game has held the Hawkeyes back in 2020 and is the reason they will likely fail to win the Big Ten West.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa football is riding a four game streak of victories and has a legitimate chance to win the remaining games on its schedule, but even with the Hawkeyes playing at a very high level, it’s tough not to dwell on the season that could have been. Northwestern currently leads the Big Ten West at 5-1 even after its shocking loss to a Michigan State team that the Hawkeyes absolutely dismantled 49-7. Yet with Iowa sitting at 4-2 and Northwestern holding the potential tiebreaking win, the Hawkeyes’ chances of capitalizing on Michigan State’s fortuitous upset are fairly low, as Northwestern would need to lose its remaining two games while Iowa wins out for the Wildcats to surrender their grip on the West.

With Iowa likely to miss out on the Big Ten Championship for the fifth year in a row, it’s worth questioning what has held this year’s team back from reaching that goal and how the Hawkeyes might address this problem to improve their chances of winning the West next season. Through six games, Iowa has gotten excellent play from nearly every position group. Iowa’s defense has been fantastic since returning to full strength, its special teams has given it the edge in several games, its offensive line and running game have been predictably formidable, and, when given the opportunity, the pass catchers have flashed the athleticism that made fans believe this offense could be something special. However, one position has consistently held Iowa back this season: quarterback.

Expectations for Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras were high entering the 2020 season, and with good reason. Petras was a highly-regarded prospect out of California who had broken several of Pro Bowl quarterback Jared Goff’s high school passing records and who the coaches had basically anointed as the eventual starter before the 2019 season was even over. With four talented wide receivers, several athletic tight ends with fantastic ball skills, a dynamic running game to help take the pressure off the quarterback, and one of the best returning offensive lines the Hawkeyes have had in some time, it seemed Petras would have all the tools at hid disposal to succeed in his first year as a starter.

However, Petras and the Iowa passing game have failed to develop any real consistency despite these favorable conditions. Iowa is averaging less than 200 passing yards per game, Petras is completing only 56.3% of his passes for a measly 5.2 yards per attempt, and Iowa has thrown more interceptions this season (six) than it has passing touchdowns (five). Petras has consistently struggled to hit open receivers in the short,

intermediate,

or deep passing games,

which has frequently stalled Iowa’s drives while often making the offense one-dimensional?

What can account for Petras’ poor play so far this season? The offensive line is certainly not to blame, as Iowa is surrendering fewer sacks per game (1.17) than any team in the conference and boasts one of the top 25 sack rates in the country according to Football Outsiders (3.8%). Furthermore, while Iowa’s receiving corps has dropped several passes this season, many of these miscues can be attributed to either poor ball placement by the quarterback or short passes which are thrown at far too great a velocity for the receiver to have a realistic chance of catching them.

Instead, Petras’ struggles can largely be attributed to accuracy issues and poor decision making. Despite his considerable arm strength, Petras has been a disaster throwing downfield, as Iowa has failed to complete a single pass that traveled 30+ yards in the air this season. In fact, Iowa has had only one passing play go for 30+ yards this year (a short swing pass against Purdue which Tyler Goodson broke for significant yards after the catch), tied for the fewest number of such plays by any team in college football, according to CFB Stats. Even as Iowa’s running game continues to command the attention of defenses up front, Petras’ failure to hit open receivers deep has neutered Iowa’s play action passing game, forcing the Hawkeyes to sustain long drives in order to score and giving Petras more opportunities to make mistakes due to poor ball placement and his willingness to target covered receivers.

With the rest of Iowa’s team clicking despite poor quarterback play, it’s easy to wonder at how high a level the Hawkeyes might be playing if its passing game was producing as expected. Would Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent have more room to run if Iowa’s passing attack presented a credible threat for opposing defenses to take seriously, particularly if Iowa had shown any ability to hit its wide receivers deep? Might Iowa’s defense have surrendered fewer scoring drives had interceptions or incompletions not given the ball back to its opponents as frequently or in as advantageous a position?

One could certainly argue that, with even average quarterback play, Iowa might control its destiny in the Big Ten West. For the sake of argument, let’s completely exclude the Purdue game from this discussion; Petras certainly left several plays on the field in that contest, but it was his first career start and the Hawkeyes were hampered by fumbles, penalties, and a shorthanded defense which deserve a fair share of the blame. Just examining Iowa’s loss against Northwestern, a game in which Petras threw three interceptions to only one touchdown and averaged only 4.3 yards per attempt even while Iowa’s running game repeatedly faced a stacked box, it’s clear that Petras missed several opportunities throughout the game, including two potential touchdown passes to open receivers in the first quarter and a deep shot to Ihmir Smith-Marsette near the end of the first half which could have at least resulted in a Hawkeye field goal.

Any of these plays could have helped Iowa defeat Northwestern instead of losing by a single point, a win which would currently leave the Hawkeyes in first place in the West.

Despite his poor play in 2020, it is still far too early to give up on Petras. Iowa’s coaches were high on the sophomore for a reason, and at times he has flashed the arm talent that made Hawkeye fans like myself so excited to see him in action this season.

There is also reason to believe Petras would be playing at a higher level against Big Ten competition had he been afforded a normal offseason in addition to some tune-up games against lesser competition. With the exception of his first game, Petras has consistently started off hot before seeing his play fall off a cliff, indicating that he performs better when he is executing a game script that he has practiced several times before and fully understands.

Petras by Quarter

Quarter Completion % Yards TDs INTs Rating
Quarter Completion % Yards TDs INTs Rating
1st 66.7 429 3 1 148.03
2nd 55.7 349 0 1 100.52
3rd 50 168 0 1 83.64
4th 48.8 192 1 2 86.41

With more experience under his belt and a greater mastery of the offense, Iowa fans could see more of the Spencer Petras that shines in the first quarter than the one who struggles in the second half.

However, Iowa must make improving its passing game the top priority over the next offseason if it hopes to compete for a Big Ten title, even if that means going in another direction at quarterback. The coaches obviously believe Petras gives the team a better chance to win than Alex Padilla or Deuce Hogan based on their performances at practice, but both quarterbacks must be given a legitimate shot to win the job in an open competition this offseason. Furthermore, if Iowa does not see marked improvement in its passing game before season’s end, it may be time for the coaching staff to seriously consider bringing in a graduate transfer or junior college quarterback if they can identify a prospect who could legitimately challenge for the job. After all, if Petras has been unable to play at an acceptable level with the considerable talent currently around him, the coaches cannot necessarily expect his production to improve next year if/when Iowa loses some of that talent to graduation or the NFL. Even if Iowa’s most productive players all choose to return next season, the Hawkeyes owe it to themselves to do everything in their power to produce a passing game that can live up to the excellence the team is achieving in every other phase of the game.