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The Morning After: Back to the Future

The Hawkeyes went to the backup quarterback against Northwestern and may have found their future.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern
Alex Padilla and Tyler Goodson appear to be the future of any Iowa offense worth watching.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night brought a true rarity in Kirk Ferentz Iowa football. After three possessions of punting not winning, the head Hawkeye pulled the plug on Spencer Petras and inserted backup quarterback Alex Padilla.

Padilla came in and provided an instant spark for the Iowa offense. His first two possessions ended in Hawkeye touchdowns. While the raw output wasn’t terribly spectacular - Padilla finished 18 of 28 for 178 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions - the offense looked competent for solid stretches with Padilla in the game.

The Hawkeyes seemed to have a pep in their step and Brian Ferentz found more flexibility in the playbook than we’ve seen in weeks. The offensive line formed clean pockets and got a solid push in the running game. There were a few rollouts tossed in and play-action seemed an actual possibility with some hope for success.

Some of that certainly faded in the second half as six possessions resulted in five punts and just three points. It’s hard to know just how much of the second half slumping was the result of Northwestern settling in against the new QB and how much of it was the Ferentzi stalling out in a game where two scores seemed to be a nearly insurmountable lead for the Wildcats to overcome.

What we do know is Ferentz will do his best to make this into a non-controversy controversy. In his post-game remarks, the head coach indicated we would have to “cross that bridge when we get there” in terms of deciding who the starter is next week. This after reiterating at halftime that starter Spencer Petras had been dealing with a shoulder injury all week (a detail not revealed during media availability, but confirmed by Tyler Goodson in the postgame) and that had caused his removal.

While KF and BF will do their best provide cover fire for their guy, it seems pretty clear that Petras should cede the starting role to Padilla for the time being. Padilla looked crisp on his passes in all areas on Saturday night, and while he isn’t a savior, he provides more optionality in play calling.

With a modestly mobile QB, Brian Ferentz was able to move the pocket, roll Padilla out and expand the play-action game in ways Hawkeye fans haven’t seen in some time. This without being forced to curtain anything in the vertical game.

The ability to convert on screens and hit more of the short and intermediate throws without one-hoppers bouncing off the turn should help slow down would-be rushers. And that added mobility and the ability to make throws on the move when things do inevitably break down will help string along enough conversions to at a minimum help Iowa continue to play their field position game.

However, it’s unlikely that a change at QB solves all of Iowa’s problems. Even if Brian takes advantage of Padilla’s strengths and is able to open things up a bit, this offensive line continues to have their struggles. The running game really stalled out in the second half on Saturday and that is likely an indication of what Iowa can expect the rest of the year.

Northwestern’s defense is among the worst in the Big Ten, particularly against he run, and despite the early success with Padilla in the game, Iowa came away with just 17 points and 361 total yards. The Hawkeyes defense, though struggling with their tackling at times on Saturday, remains incredible. But asking them to hold opponents under 20 points per game is not a sound long term strategy.

This group is capable of meeting Iowa fans’ preseason expectations of 9-10 wins this year based on the schedule as it plays out in front of them. But they are again in need of serious help from other teams to have any shot at a return to Indianapolis and this offense seems incapable of doing much more than being serviceable for a few stretches.

What we did see on Saturday night is a 9-3 season with a top-20 ranking might be the beginning rather than the end. Padilla showed enough to warrant some optimism about what could be with a year of development from this young offensive line. The defense will always be top notch and Tory Taylor isn’t leaving just yet. This was never supposed to be a special year and we’re seeing in the belly of the schedule just why not.

But we did catch a glimpse, however short, on Saturday night of why there’s at least some hope that one of those special years could still be out there. A change to the backup quarterback isn’t going to be the sole reason for it, but it was a good start.