It is officially time to close off any talk of another quarterback leading the now 5-2 Iowa Hawkeyes.
After nearly three years in the system, two seasons as Iowa’s primary backup, and six games of starting experience, Spencer Petras finally showed what he is capable of doing in a 35-21 victory. The Hawkeye QB finished with 220 yards on 18/28 passing (64% & 7.9 YPA), three touchdowns, thousands of silenced haters, and most importantly zero interceptions.
To say it was was a rocky road behind center in 2020 does a disservice to the ice cream flavor as the case for Petras became less apparent and the likelihood of him hitting the potential Iowa saw in him dwindled. There was no reason to think he could flip the script in a game which saw him throw two passes which skidded by Tyler Goodson on five-yard hitch patterns other than blind hope.
Yet he did.
After starting the game an ugly 2-of-5 with limited pocket presence, Iowa’s back was against the wall in a 14-0 deficit. He seemed to settle in - finally - when he completed a pass he absolutely had to make on fourth down to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. The next play was a touchdown to Sam LaPorta and things were looking up. He still through some absolute ducks and his necessary red zone incompletions seemed to dispirit his receiving corps but Iowa entered half down just 1.
The Hawkeyes made good use of their third quarter drives one of which gave Iowa the lead and the second of which flipped the field. The ensuing drive saw Iowa celebrate with Shaun Beyer’s first touchdown on an absolute dime from Petras.
So this is why?
At this point in the second half, he was 7/9 for 75 yards and two TDs. More importantly, he showed more resolve in the pocket and willingness to make throws like the above instead of freezing up like many times before.
Adding excitement to the matter was just how dialed in Brian Ferentz, Iowa’s playcaller, seemed throughout the second half. The emergence of the Wildcat has been a fascinating one this season, and a scheme he leaned on to close out Iowa’s victory.
Though it’s about a decade later than its initial reemergence, there is significant value to it within the je ne sais quoi of Iowa Football. Iowa wants to win by running the ball when both teams know Iowa is going to run the ball. Doing it from a traditional set - and Iowa found success running the ball traditionally - allows for defenses to take the QB out of the equation. By forcing defenses to account for Tyler Goodson, Iowa’s “QB” in the ‘cat, it evens up the numbers game even though Iowa is calling their shot of a running play out of it.
Speaking to its ability: two of Iowa’s longest plays came out of it, with Goodson handing off to ISM & Tyrone Tracy (his only touch) for runs of 31 and 21 yards, in Iowa’s drive which capped of 35 straight points for the Hawks.
Going forward, Iowa’s quarterback situation is sorted. Coaches at other institutions have gone away from their starters for less obvious reasons than Kirk Ferentz could have gone away from Petras. Heck, in each of Iowa’s last three games they’ve seen two quarterbacks while the game was somewhat in the balance.
Yet the position at Iowa is best viewed as an extension of the coaching staff than as the most important player and Kirk Ferentz has long demonstrated a loyalty to his staff through thick and thin. This week, he said he was never anxious to see his second-string quarterback on the field. In other words, Iowa has their guy in season and they’re going to stick with him.
Perhaps the easiest lens to understand why Iowa’s quarterback is more coach than player: it is not difficult to flick on any other college football game and see 11 guys turn to the sidelines for a potential audible. None of that happens at Iowa - coaching is done once the play is sent into the field. Now, there is merit to the debate about whether this is the best way to operate - essentially delegating playcalling to a student-athlete away from someone who is paid to analyze defenses and identify the best ways to attack them - but it’s how Iowa does it.
It’s also fair to wonder if there was ever a point where the executional inabilities outweighed the administrative abilities but that point was never reached with Spencer Petras and, likely, never will.
As it pertains to what Iowa football looks like going forward, it is absolutely worth examining the past. The Hawkeyes have two bad losses this season. These losses were not because of bad quarterback play but could have been overcome with good quarterback play. Had they been overcome by good quarterback play, Iowa would be in the thick of the college football playoff picture. Their wins stack up with, at minimum, Ohio State’s, and a win against Wisconsin would, hypothetically, put them in the Big Ten Championship Game against the Buckeyes.
Iowa is close.
The Hawkeyes open 2021 with games against potential top 10 opponents in Indiana and Iowa State. Yes, I know how freaking weird that sentence is but it is the truth. The excuses of 2020’s slow start does not exist in nine months because Iowa has its quarterback, he has his experience, and he has finally showed how well he is capable of playing.