By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras was nearing the end of his weekly media appearance on Tuesday when he was asked if he grew up watching ESPN College GameDay.
Petras grew up in San Rafael, California, so he had to wake up bright and early on the West Coast to watch College GameDay, which will host its long-standing pre-game show from Ames on Saturday morning in preparation for the top-10 showdown between Iowa and Iowa State later in the afternoon.
Waking up early on Saturday wasn’t a problem for Petras, though, because he had to if he wanted to play football for Marin Catholic High School.
Unlike most areas where high school football games are played on Friday night, Petras’ high school played its home games on Saturday afternoon, but you’d probably never guess why, even if you had a million guesses.
So let Petras explain why.
“My high school, we had the money for lights, but the neighborhood decided, I believe the main point was there was a migratory bird in a, not a swamp, but a wetland right next to my high school that the lights could interfere with their ability to migrate correctly,” Petras said. “I’m not a scientist, but it kind of seems like they don’t want lights in their neighborhood even though they moved next to a high school.
“But anyway, it was too bad. Friday night lights is something I never really got to experience.”
Petras will get to experience on Saturday the Iowa-Iowa State game like only a select few get to experience as Iowa’s starting quarterback. So it’ll be just like high school, except for the glare of the national spotlight, the 60,000 fans, the level of talent, the complexity of the play book, and the huge post-season ramifications for both teams in their pursuits to be special.
Petras will be at the center of the storm, a key figure in whatever unfolds at Jack Trice Stadium.
He answered numerous questions on Tuesday about the challenge of facing potentially the best Iowa State team ever.
Part of being Iowa’s starting quarterback is showing up every Tuesday morning during the course of the season for the weekly media event.
It just goes with the territory. The quarterback has to speak.
Brad Banks did it gracefully and humbly.
Drew Tate did it intensely, and sometimes angrily.
Nate Stanley did it quietly.
Every quarterback is different, on and off the field.
Petras is in his second season as the starting quarterback, but this is his first time dealing with the media in person on a weekly basis.
In-person interviews were prohibited during the 2020 season due to Covid-19 health concerns.
Players and coaches interacted with the media through zoom conferences, and games in 2020 were played in stadiums that were mostly empty.
So in some ways, Petras is like a first-year starter, and Saturday’s game at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames will be his first real test in a hostile environment, and before a packed stadium.
“We can always do things to take the crowd out of the game,” Petras said. “If we’re executing well offensively it should take the crowd out of the game, at least a little bit. They’ll certainly come back at some point. They don’t leave after a good drive.
“But it just becomes about making sure that little errors like false starts and miss communications don’t happen. And that’s really up to me, and our receives making sure they communicate to each other. And if there’s any questions about anything, we get it sorted out before we snap the ball, making sure we all hear the snap count to the best of our ability, and get off as a unit. Things like that.”
Kirk Ferentz couldn’t have said it any better.
And what Petras said he probably hears every day from Kirk Ferentz, from Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and from quarterback coach Ken O’Keefe.
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The fact that Petras is a fourth-year junior could help him deal with the distractions on Saturday. He was the backup quarterback in 2019 wen Iowa played in Ames.
“At least he’s been around and this isn’t going to be, geez, where am I, one of those deals,” said Kirk Ferentz. “He’s witnessed all this stuff.
“You know, but he’s in control, so it’s a little different, a little different seat.”
Petras doesn’t necessarily have to win Saturday’s game, but he can’t lose it for Iowa.
He can’t do what Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. did in the season opener against Iowa last Saturday, which was throw three interceptions, including two pick sixes in the first half of a 34-6 loss at Kinnick Stadium.
The odds of Petras, or any quarterback for that matter, throwing two pick sixes in the same game is slim.
Petras just has to make sure that he doesn’t allow for interceptions to impact the outcome.
He can’t help it if his running backs fumble, which happened twice against Indiana, or if his receivers drop passes.
But Petras controls the passing game, and Saturday could be a case in which he has to make some key throws in to tight windows with the game on the line, and with thousands of Cyclone fans telling him that he sucks.
Iowa has won seven straight games with Petras as the starter dating back to last season.
His statistics, however, have mostly been average, including last Saturday’s season opener.
Petras only completed 13-of-27 passes for 145 and no touchdowns against Indiana. There were several drops, and he didn’t throw an interception. But for the most part, his performance was average.
His critics also like to bring up that Iowa’s six wins last season came against opponents with a combined record of 18-28.
Indiana entered the season ranked No. 17, but hardly played like a ranked team against Iowa last Saturday, especially on offense.
The question now is, could the Hawkeyes prevail against Iowa State on Saturday with Petras being just average?
Of course, they could. But it’s hard to envision.
Football has been described as the ultimate team sport, and yet, so much depends on what happens at the quarterback position.
It’s hard to see Iowa beating this veteran and star-studded Iowa State team on its home field with Petras just being average.
There still are some Iowa fans who aren’t sold on Petras as the starter, but he could go a long way in convincing them with a strong performance on Saturday.
Petras raised a few eyebrows against Indiana when he scored on a 9-yard draw play in which he flipped into the end zone after being hit near the goal line.
He hasn’t shown much scrambling ability, or a willingness to run, but on that particular play, the 6-foot-5, 233-pound Petras showed that he can make a play with his legs.
And he might have to do that again on Saturday to help counter Brock Purdy’s dual-threat capability as the Iowa State quarterback.
A reporter jokingly asked Petras on Tuesday if he now wants to be called a dual-threat quarterback.
Petras played along with the joke, but he also defending himself, telling the reporter that he was a sprinter and hurdler for his high school track team, and once was clocked at 11.8 seconds in the 100-meters.
“I was a track athlete,” Petras said. “One problem now is I’m like 35 pounds heavier than I was back in high school. But I know that once I get going, I’m not slow by any means. The problem is just the acceleration. But yeah, it’s an element that I think is a good one, and it paid off on Saturday.”
Petras has been described by his teammates as one of the hardest workers on the team, if not the hardest. He knows the playbook inside and out, and he knows how to command the huddle, and how to earn trust and respect.
The challenge now is to lift his performance to another level, and Saturday’s game in Ames would be a great place to start.
Petras had a high school football career that could be described as spectacular.
He was name Metro Player of the Year and conference Player of the year for his high school team in northern California.
He also helped his high school team finish 35-5 over three seasons while participating in the state playoffs in all three seasons.
And as a senior he set school records for passing yards in a game (502) and in a season (4,157).