By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Early in the second quarter of Iowa’s 35-21 victory at Illinois on Saturday, I tweeted that “the difference at quarterback is stunning right now.”
Fair to say my tweet didn’t age well, but I’m okay with that because of the reason.
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras shifted the narrative by rising to the occasion when his team needed him to do just that.
Iowa fell behind Illinois 14-0 and one of the biggest reasons was the play of both quarterbacks.
Brandon Peters completed his first eight passes for Illinois, and he already had thrown two touchdown passes by the early stages of the second quarter, while Petras struggled just make routine throws in the first quarter, and in the early parts of the second quarter.
The situation looked bleak for Iowa, and social media was on fire with Hawkeye fans ripping Petras and demanding a quarterback change.
Iowa entered the Illinois game on a four-game winning streak, but there still was doubt surrounding Petras because his performance in those four games had been average to below average from a statistical standpoint.
Petras was making his receivers work too hard to make what should be routine catches at the Big Ten level. He also had made some ill-advised throws that led to interceptions.
Fair or not, some fans were convinced that Iowa was winning in spite of Petras, and the frustration level reached a boil on Saturday when Illinois led by two touchdowns.
That’s also right about the same time that Petras, a third-year sophomore from San Rafael, Calif., went up and down the Iowa bench imploring his teammates to stick with him.
Petras then did his part by suddenly raising his performance level about midway through the second quarter.
He started making not just routine throws, but difficult throws as well, throws into tight windows and throws with some touch and feel.
Iowa would go on to score 35 consecutive points, with three of the five touchdowns coming on passes from Petras.
“It was huge,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “Because we were not even spinning our tires, our tires weren’t moving. We were stuck and it was not pretty. In your mind, you start having dark thoughts when those things happen. It’s like, OK, maybe not our day.
“But that’s why the games are 60 minutes, that’s why you keep playing. You need a little something to get you going and somebody’s got to spark you. I think once we got a little bit of movement there, he certainly settled down and played well the rest of the way.”
It took guts, poise and resolve for Petras to overcome his poor start against Illinois. He could’ve collapsed under the pressure, but he stayed the course and kept believing in himself.
Twitter had gone from being a Petras rip fest at the beginning of the Illinois game to a Petras love fest at the end, and deservedly so, because he had earned it.
There still are some fans who need to see more before they’re willing to call the Illinois comeback a turning point for Petras.
And fair enough.
But for the final 2 ½ quarters of Saturday’s game, Petras showed why he is Iowa’s starting quarterback, and why Kirk Ferentz and Iowa offensive Brian Ferentz have spoken so highly about him.
Petras still is very much a work in progress, but so was the great Chuck Long in his first season as a starter in 1982.
In no way am I suggesting that Petras is the next Chuck Long, rather what I’m saying is that Petras deserves some time to grow and to prove himself.
It’s hard enough being a first-year starting quarterback in the Big Ten under normal circumstances. But to do it during a global pandemic that caused spring practice to be canceled, and that is now causing daily distractions and stress, makes it more challenging.
The number one objective for any quarterback is to win, and right now, Petras is 5-2 after his first seven starts.
He also has good command of the huddle, and you can tell that his teammates like and respect him.
“I think everyone, we started off slow in that first quarter,” sophomore center Tyler Linderbaum said after Saturday’s game. “I wouldn’t say that’s just Spencer’s fault. That’s the whole offensive group. As things got rolling, his confidence grew, obviously. That’s going to happen to any quarterback. As things get rolling, they start building the confidence, they start hitting those throws.”
One of the biggest reasons things got rolling is because Petras got rolling.
You could see his confidence grow as Iowa continued to pull away from the Fighting Illini.
Only time and a bigger body of work will determine if the Illinois game was a turning point for Petras.
Should he struggle against Wisconsin this coming Saturday and Iowa loses, the critics will flood social media with ridicule and more demands for a quarterback change.
That is just part of being Iowa’s starting quarterback.
The starting quarterback is the fan favorite when playing well, but when struggling, the backup quarterback becomes the fan favorite.
Kirk Ferentz has made quarterback changes before, the most recent being C.J. Beathard replacing two-year starter Jake Rudock as the starter shortly after the 2014 season.
Jake Christenson also was benched and replaced by Ricky Stanzi during the 2008 season after having started all 12 games in 2007.
So while Kirk Ferentz might be loyal to his starting quarterback, he still has a breaking point. It just depends on the circumstances.
Beathard was a fourth-year junior when he replaced Rudock following a season in which Iowa unraveled down the stretch, losing its final three games.
Stanzi was a third-year sophomore when he supplanted Christensen, who had failed to lead Iowa to a bowl game as the starter in 2007.
Iowa’s current backups, on the other hand, are redshirt freshman Alex Padilla, who barely has any game experience, and true freshman Deuce Hogan, who was in high school at this time last year.
Petras is Iowa’s starting quarterback because Kirk Ferentz and Brian Ferentz believe he gives Iowa its best chance of winning right now.
This isn’t a popularity contest, but rather big-time college football where winning is serious business.
Petras is popular with his teammates, but that’s not why he is starting, as we saw for 2 1/2 quarters against Illinois.