By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, this has been a brutal eight-day stretch for an Iowa football team that is coming off a brutal offseason.
Two losses, two player defections and a star player getting arrested for drunken driving after being clocked at 74 miles per hour in a 30-mile zone at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday in Iowa City.
That star player, receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, is also a senior, and that just adds to the frustration and concern because he should be setting an example for others to follow.
A player under Kirk Ferentz usually receives a one-game suspension for operating while under the influence, but if ever there was a time for Ferentz to issue a harsher penalty, this would be it.
Smith-Marsette is just lucky that he didn’t injure himself or anybody else, or even worse than that.
Sure, he’s frustrated.
Everybody associated with or loyal to the Iowa football team is frustrated right now, with the Hawkeyes 0-2 for the first time since the 2000 season.
But that shouldn’t cause you to make poor decisions.
Smith-Marsette should count his blessings and focus on trying to save a season that is rapidly spiraling in the wrong direction.
His team needs his versatility, his speed and quickness, his moxie and his leadership.
And his quarterback really needs Smith-Marsette to make better decisions off the field.
Quarterbacks often get too much credit during good times and too much blame during tough times, and that is happening right now with Spencer Petras.
Some fans already want a quarterback change after just two games because they apparently are convinced that Petras, a third-year sophomore, isn’t the answer, and that one of the backup quarterbacks must be better.
Iowa currently has three quarterbacks on scholarship with Petras, redshirt freshman Alex Padilla and true freshman Deuce Hogan.
Padilla saw no game action last season, while Hogan was playing high school football in Texas at this time last year.
One of them could ultimately supplant Petras as the starter, but to make that move right now under the circumstances would be premature and unfair.
It’s hard enough being the new starting quarterback for Iowa, but to take over that role during a global pandemic, and with all of the distractions and weirdness that comes with it, only adds to the challenge.
Petras also has had to deal with the distractions and emotions that came this summer after multiple former Iowa black players accused the Iowa program of having racial disparities.
And while it’s true that every player is in the same position with regard to the pandemic, every player isn’t a quarterback trying to replace a three-year starter, and without help from spring practice, or a normal offseason, to develop.
Petras deserves more than just two games to prove himself, and he also needs a better game plan heading into Saturday’s game against Michigan State at Kinnick Stadium because the one that Brian Ferentz used for the Northwestern game didn’t make a lot of sense.
Iowa led 17-0 after the first quarter, but instead of emphasizing the run to help protect the lead and control tempo, Brian Ferentz became pass happy.
Petras attempted 50 passes during the 21-20 loss to Northwestern after having thrown 39 passes during the 24-20 loss to Purdue in the season opener a week earlier.
That’s 89 passes in two games, and an average of nearly 45 pass attempts per game.
To put that in perspective, Chuck Long attempted 227 passes in 12 games as a first-year starter at Iowa under Hayden Fry in 1982. That averages to about 19 pass attempts per game.
Some will counter by saying the college game has changed dramatically from a scheme standpoint since the 1980s and that it’s misleading to compare the two eras.
But that’s not the point in comparing Long with Petras, and it’s also ridiculous to think that Iowa’s passing attack is way more sophisticated now than it was under Hayden Fry in the 1980s.
Chuck Long didn’t become the Big Ten’s first player to pass for 10,000 yards in a career, and a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1985, by telling his receivers to go out and cut left or right, or go deep.
He did so by developing within a system that strived for balance between the run and pass, and he did so gradually.
Fry knew that Long wasn’t ready to throw 40 or 50 passes in a game when he became the starter. So instead Fry sort of eased Long into the role.
Long has said before that Fry brought him along slowly at the beginning in order to build confidence, and to avoid mistakes.
Northwestern intercepted Petras three times, including twice in the fourth quarter, and that’s the risk when a quarterback throws 50 passes, and his team only runs 23 times.
In fairness to Petras, he threw 47 passes against Northwestern that weren’t intercepted, and 26 of them were completions.
Petras clearly has to improve in all areas, except for arm strong, because sometimes, he throws too hard when more touch is needed.
But again, he needs more than two games to prove himself, and he needs a running game to protect himself.
Brian Ferentz for some reason seems to have abandoned the running game against Northwestern and that made his pro-style quarterback a one-dimensional sitting duck in the pocket.
Iowa only had 23 rushing attempts for 77 yards against Northwestern, and to have so few attempts just a week after having rushed for 195 yards against Purdue doesn’t make sense.
“I think if you, historically, look at those kinds of numbers the outcome wasn’t good,” said Kirk Ferentz, who is Brian Ferentz’s father. “We didn’t run the ball effectively enough today. We certainly had a couple good runs, but with consistency, not enough.
“So that’s something we’re going to have to get addressed because we don’t want to play that way. We’re looking for a lot more balance than that.”
The current Iowa offense seems well-equipped to be balanced with an experienced offensive line, a deep and talented group of receivers, a rising star at tight end in sophomore Sam LaPorta, and three proven running backs, including dynamic sophomore Tyler Goodson.
The Georgia native only had 15 touches against Northwestern, 13 rushes for 43 yards and two catches for eight yards.
A person doesn’t have to be Bill Belichick to realize that Goodson should be more involved in the offense.
I’ve always been reluctant to question play calling because Brian Ferentz, or any Iowa offensive coordinator for that matter, obviously knows way more about football than I could ever imagine, and because Brian Ferentz has certainly had his moments as a play caller, most notably the 49-24 victory over the University of Southern California in the 2019 Holiday Bowl, and, of course, the 55-24 drubbing of Ohio State in 2017.
But what I witnessed against Northwestern was a head scratcher.
So often I kept thinking Iowa, behind its veteran offensive line, would run Goodson, or Mekhi Sargent, or even Ivory Kelly-Martin, between the tackles against Northwestern, but so often it didn’t happen.
And why no screen passes?
There might be an explanation from a scheme standpoint. Northwestern did load the box and blitz throughout the game, but that’s Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald.
There shouldn’t be any surprises at this point, besides, Petras attempting 50 passes. That certainly was a surprise.
This current offense seems to have no real identity after two games.
The only thing that really matters is that Northwestern won and is 2-0, while Iowa lost and is 0-2 for the first time since the 2000 season.
There is a growing narrative that says Iowa should move on from its zone blocking schemes, but others, including some with high-level knowledge of the game, will say that the scheme doesn’t matter that much if you execute and have good players.
Whatever the case, the key for Petras is to block out the critics and keep believing in himself.
“It comes down to us being more detailed and better preparation in everything,” Petras said after the Northwestern loss. ‘Everything just needs to be better.
“We’re close, really close. We’ve just got to keep pushing. And we look forward to doing that this week.”
Petras is right in saying everything just needs to be better, including the game plan, and his offensive line, which has two tackles that have combined for more than 80 career starts in Alaric Jackson and Indiana graduate transfer Coy Cronk, and a rising star at center in Tyler Linderbaum.
Cronk was benched in the second half against Northwestern, so that’s another sign, along with the number of passes that Petra has thrown, that this offense is struggling.