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Does Iowa Have a True Quarterback Controversy?

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How will Iowa navigate its quarterback conundrum ahead of the Big Ten Championship?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Iowa football team just won its first Big Ten West title since 2015 but cannot say with any certainty who its best quarterback is. Although one might expect a team with a 10-2 record to have clarity about who should start under center, Iowa’s 2021 campaign has often left more questions than answers in that regard. While junior Spencer Petras led the Hawkeyes to a 13-4 record as a starter, a shoulder injury suffered during the team’s midseason slump opened the door for sophomore Alex Padilla to establish himself as a capable alternative. The Hawkeyes won all three games started by Padilla, but his final start against Nebraska saw Petras replace Padilla after an ineffective first half and lead the Hawkeyes to a comeback victory.

With Iowa less than a week away from competing for a conference championship, the question of which player should start at quarterback for the Hawkeyes remains an open one. Iowa was able to jumpstart its floundering offense by making quarterback changes against both Nebraska and Northwestern, but the Hawkeyes may struggle to remain competitive should its offense start the game as listlessly against Michigan, a team with nearly twice as many wins (11) as the Huskers and Wildcats have combined (6). Defeating Michigan and winning the Big Ten Championship will be a tall order for the Hawkeyes, and the coaching staff must start the quarterback that gives the offense the best chance to stay in the game. This article will lay out the competing cases for starting either Petras or Padilla, as well as raise the question of whether the team might best be served by allowing both quarterbacks to see the field on Saturday.

The Case for Spencer Petras:

Say what you will about Petras’ limitations, but Iowa has proven that it can win big games with him under center. The junior quarterback has led the team to victories over Penn State, Iowa State, and Wisconsin, has won big games in hostile road environments, and has quarterbacked Iowa to wins against its four biggest rivals during his two years as a starter. One can argue that Petras’ go-ahead touchdown pass to Nico Ragaini to beat Penn State was the most consequential high-pressure throw made by an Iowa QB since Iowa’s last trip to the Big Ten Championship in 2015.

Petras also boasts significantly more experience than Padilla, having thrown 492 career passes compared to only 97 attempts by the sophomore. Given both the stakes at play and the talent Iowa will face in the opposing defense, the Hawkeyes are best served by putting the ball into the hands of the veteran passer who has a deeper well of experience to draw from should the going get tough. Between Petras’ ability to steady the Hawkeye offense against Nebraska to the way he rebounded from a horrendous start in Iowa’s signature victory over Penn State (Petras started 1-9 for 14 yards and one interception before finishing 17-31 for 195 yards and two touchdowns), his calming effect on the team will be essential in a game as emotionally charged as Saturday’s contest.

Petras also has a clear edge over Padilla when it comes to accuracy. While Petras has completed 58.1% of his passes this season, Padilla’s completion rate languishes at 46.4%, a number far too low for Iowa to generate consistent production from the passing game. The disparity is even worse when examining the two quarterbacks’ production on third down, where Petras is completing 57.5% of his passes compared to 38.7% for Padilla. In fact, Padilla has only completed greater than 50% of his passes in one game this season: Iowa’s win against a Northwestern team that is allowing opponents to complete a conference-high 66.9% of their passes against them. Furthermore, defenses seem to have adjusted to Padilla since acquiring more film on him, as the sophomore has completed only 12 of his last 31 attempts while producing no touchdowns, one interception, and several passes which could have easily been intercepted.

Even if Padilla has more upside than Petras (a dubious proposition given that Petras boasts prototypical NFL size and has the stronger arm of the two quarterbacks), Iowa ultimately needs to go with the signal caller who has proven he can win big games and complete big passes on a regular basis. Petras may be a game manager, but Iowa has a better chance of defeating Michigan by allowing Petras to manage them to victory than by turning the keys over to the more volatile and less experienced player in Padilla.

The Case for Alex Padilla:

Petras may be the safer option, but Padilla gives Iowa the best chance to win. While Petras is content to manage the game, Padilla has shown a greater willingness to not only attack opposing defenses downfield, but to target Iowa’s big play weapons in the passing game and get the ball into the hands of freshmen wideouts Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV as often as possible. Iowa enters Saturday’s game as the clear underdog, and with good reason given the impressive nature of Michigan’s 42-27 win over Ohio State last week. If Iowa wants to overcome the very real talent gap between its team and the Wolverines, it will need to come out swinging for the fences offensively, something which Padilla’s upside and aggressive mentality will better enable the Hawkeyes to do.

Additionally, Padilla’s mobility could give him a substantial leg up over Petras against this particular opponent. Michigan boasts two of the country’s best edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, two players who have combined for 23 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss on the season. Given the way Iowa’s tackles have struggled with pass protection for much of the year, Petras’ stationary pocket passing style threatens to make him a liability when faced with the daunting Wolverine pass rush. Padilla has the speed, agility, and pocket presence to avoid incoming defenders and has shown himself to a much better passer than Petras when forced to scramble or throw on the run. If Michigan is able to get pressure on Petras (which it will), it will likely result in sacks, incompletions, and turnovers. With Padilla behind center, Iowa at least has a shot to extend plays and attack any cracks in the defense that might emerge.

Furthermore, the statistical case for Petras might not be as strong as it appears at first glance. Padilla boasts a higher passer rating against opponents with winning records (137.7) than Petras does this year (107.37), has produced passing plays of 25+ yards on a higher percentage of his throws, and has actually shown better ball security when playing from behind than Petras has (Petras has a TD:INT ratio of 2:4 compared to 1:0 for Padilla). Padilla’s accuracy rating was also disproportionately impacted by a poor performance by his wide receivers against Illinois, a game in which the Hawkeyes dropped as many passes as they caught (six apiece). It can also be argued that Padilla’s completion percentage suffers due to his willingness to more frequently attempt throws with a higher degree of difficulty than Petras’ average pass. Attacking downfield can certainly result in incompletions, but it can also produce big plays that turn the tide of a game the way Padilla’s 72-yard touchdown to Charlie Jones did against Minnesota.

The bottom line: if Iowa wants to keep it respectable game ensure that it only loses to Michigan by 7-10 points, the coaches should play it safe and ride with Petras as the starter. However, if they are playing to win, Padilla’s upside, athleticism, and lack of scar tissue from a year of abuse behind Iowa’s inexperienced offensive line make him the clear option.

A Third Option?:

While Petras and Padilla both have attributes that make them effective quarterbacks, neither player possess the skillset needed to maximize every facet of Iowa’s offense. Accordingly, might Iowa’s coaches find a way to utilize both players against Michigan in a manner which plays to their respective strengths?

While Petras has the body of work and statistical resume to suggest that he is the steadier option at quarterback, Iowa could look to Padilla in select spots to give Michigan’s defense another wrinkle to contend with. Want to run a bootleg pass or test Michigan with a quarterback run or a read option look? Put Padilla in for a few plays (or even a series, if the situation warrants it) to see whether it opens up the offense. Purdue executed a version of this gameplan against Iowa with great success, supplementing starter Aidan O’Connell with doses of Jack Plummer and Austin Burton in ways that frequently caught the Hawkeye defense off guard and created additional wrinkles for Phil Parker to account for. It has been several years since Iowa has executed such a strategy with any level of effectiveness (see Kyle McCann and Brad Banks in 2001), but it could provide the Hawkeyes with a creative way to generate production in the passing game against an extremely formidable defense. Iowa’s coaches have made it clear that they believe both quarterbacks are skilled enough to win games for this team. If the Hawkeye passing attack struggles against Michigan, the coaches should not be afraid to test whether the solution lies not in the hands of one single quarterback, but instead with both.