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In the Music City Bowl, Iowa Is Finally Putting in the Backup

Injuries and attrition at the quarterback position will finally give freshmen Joey Labas and Carson May their time to shine, for better or worse.

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

“The second team quarterback is always the most popular guy on the team”: a phrase popularly attributed to Archie Manning, but which is so widely accepted as football gospel that it may as well have been chiseled into stone by Walter Camp himself. Many Hawkeye fans have lived this axiom over the past few years. Spencer Petras’ inconsistent play regularly left fans wanting more from the quarterback position, and a contingent of Iowa fans took to calling for backup Alex Padilla to supplant him as the starter. When Padilla was underwhelming in relief of Petras, some fans championed the third-string QB getting a shot at the starting job. Familiarity has a way of breeding contempt, especially amidst offensive struggles like those the Hawkeyes have endured. When the offense fails to produce, the starting quarterback tends to be the easiest target for fan ire, fair or otherwise.

This New Year’s Eve, Hawkeye fans are finally going to get their wish. Iowa will be without both Petras and Padilla for its Music City Bowl matchup against Kentucky, with the former quarterback set to miss time due to a shoulder injury and the latter entering the transfer portal. Instead, Iowa will turn to 3rd and 4th string freshmen quarterbacks Joey Labas and Carson May, who have played a combined zero snaps of college football. It’s anyone’s guess whether Iowa’s offense will look better or worse with a green-eared quarterback under center, but at least it will give Hawkeye fans something different to watch than what they’ve seen over the past few years.

Iowa fans have plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of the quarterback position this bowl season. Whoever gets the starting nod will have to contend with one of the nation’s top pass defenses. The Wildcats have allowed the seventh-fewest yards per game in college football this season with 173.4 per contest, are allowing opposing QBs to post only a 116.56 passer rating, and have more interceptions on the season (10) than they do passing touchdowns allowed (9). Furthermore, Iowa’s quarterbacks will be without key receivers Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV, both of whom have declared their intent to enter the transfer portal and who may yet be joined by other skill players in the weeks to come. These circumstances would make things difficult for even an experienced quarterback, but Iowa will be starting one of two neophytes who failed to meaningfully challenge Petras or Padilla for the starting job at any point this season. Given that Iowa threw for fewer passing yards per game (158.2) than all but one Power Five team in 2022, this paints a grim picture about where Labas and May are in their development at this stage.

Iowa’s chances for victory may ultimately depend on how quickly the Hawkeye coaches can prepare Labas and May to transition from the scout team to playing against an SEC defense. Recent history says this may be a tall order. When it comes to Iowa’s offensive coaching staff, phrases like “offensive ineptitude” and “the best case against nepotism” tend to be bandied about much more than “creative” and “really good at developing quarterbacks.” Iowa’s coaches had nine months to prepare two experienced starting quarterbacks to be successful this season and failed to do so. There is reason to be skeptical that one month will be enough time for them to succeed at this same task with two players who have never seen live game action at the college level.

Yet as dire as Iowa’s quarterback situation may appear, there is still some room for cautious optimism. First, the Hawkeyes likely will not be the only team playing in the Music City Bowl without their top quarterback. Kentucky signal-caller Will Levis has already announced his intent to declare for the NFL Draft at the conclusion of the season, and it would not be surprising for him to sit out the bowl game to protect his status as a presumptive first round pick. Given the strength of Iowa’s defense and its storied track record of tormenting young QBs, the Hawkeyes may be able to lean on running back Kaleb Johnson, tight end Sam LaPorta, and their excellent special teams to earn themselves a victory. Iowa has won several games in spite of their quarterback over the past few years, so why should their formula for victory change much if Labas or May are under center as opposed to Petras or Padilla?

Furthermore, Labas and May are inexperienced, but are certainly not lacking in talent. Both players were rated as four-star prospects by various recruiting services coming out of high school and were regarded as late bloomers who initially flew under the radar, but whose stock rose once scouts analyzed their senior season game film. Furthermore, Labas and May are both significantly more mobile than Petras was, a trait which might allow them to survive Iowa’s poor pass protection and allow the coaches to feature the quarterback run game more than they have in recent years. Iowa might also ironically find a silver lining in having a quarterback who has not developed any bad habits during their time playing in a broken offense. The Hawkeyes could honestly benefit from starting a quarterback who can play instinctually and doesn’t carry scar tissue from being battered behind Iowa’s porous offensive line or have several years’ worth of questionable quarterbacking advice from Brian Ferentz playing on repeat in their head whenever they drop back to pass.

Finally, Iowa fans can take solace in the fact that, regardless of how the quarterbacks play in the Music City Bowl, the team’s woes at this position may finally be coming to an end. The Hawkeyes secured a commitment from Michigan transfer Cade McNamara last week, giving Iowa a proven signal-caller who led his team to a Big Ten Championship and playoff appearance just one year ago. McNamara is not an instant cure to Iowa’s schematic and development problems or its weaknesses at wide receiver or offensive line, but he should certainly raise both the floor and ceiling of Iowa’s offense next season. Even if Iowa’s starter plays poorly in the Music City Bowl, the Hawkeyes have found their starter for 2023 and can chalk up this game as a weird footnote in Iowa football history.

Still, the winner of this December’s QB competition could position themselves as McNamara’s heir apparent in 2025 and his primary backup in the short term, the latter of which is particularly important given that McNamara just underwent surgery to repair a “serious knee injury” which could theoretically bother him into next season. As depressing as it has been to watch Iowa’s offense this season, imagine how optimistic Hawkeye fans will feel if Carson May wins the starting job during bowl practice and performs well against Kentucky, potentially setting the program up for two years of McNamara followed by two seasons of May with highly-regarded signees Marco Lainez and James Resar set to join the fold in the coming years? It has been a long time since Iowa fans have entered a game feeling good about the quarterback position. As unlikely as it sounds, a solid quarterbacking performance this New Year’s Eve could result in Iowa fans exiting the season feeling good about the program’s next several years at the quarterback position. That would truly be a Music City Miracle.