By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Despite what his critics might say, Spencer Petras is getting better.
He’s showing why Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has stuck with him as the starting quarterback despite having modest statistics.
Of course, it also helps to have won 11 straight games as Iowa’s starting quarterback, and to have thrown just one interception in five games for a team that is 5-0 and ranked third in the Associated Press poll heading into Saturday’s much-anticipated showdown against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium.
But even with all that positive reinforcement, Petras still has his doubters and naysayers who accuse him of holding back the offense.
Petras could go a long way in changing that, however, with a strong performance on Saturday.
The eyes of the college football world will be focused on Iowa City on Saturday, and Petras will be at the center of the media storm.
Saturday’s game will mark just the sixth time in program history that Iowa has played in a top-five matchup and the first time since 1985 when the top-ranked Hawkeyes edged No. 2 Michigan 12-10 on a last-second field goal by Rob Houghtlin at Kinnick Stadium.
The win helped to propel Iowa to the Big Ten title, helped quarterback Chuck Long to a runner-up finish for the Heisman Trophy, and lifted the Iowa fan base to a euphoric state.
Petras is nowhere close to being at Long’s level from an individual performance standpoint, but one thing they have in common is winning.
The moment rarely was too big for Long, especially during the latter stages of his career, and so far this season, Petras has handled all the big moments well enough for Iowa to be 5-0 for just the third time under Kirk Ferentz.
Petras was asked at Tuesday’s weekly press conference about dealing with the hype and the distractions that come with playing in such a highly publicized game.
His answer gave a glimpse as to why Kirk Ferentz has so much respect for Petras’ live-in-the-moment approach.
“It’s important for us to have a great Tuesday practice and have great meetings and go to class and have a good day at class and come back in the afternoon and have good meeting, eat a good, and meal, watch film and go to sleep,” Petras said. “Just kind of stick to a routine because if you’re not in a routine and you’re not ready for the week, and you let the weeks just kind of happen, then with all the buzz and stuff, you can get distracted real easy. And that won’t help you on Saturday.
“So, just sticking to a routine and staying in the present and focusing on what’s important.”
Petras then was asked if that’s easier said than done.
“I think especially maybe for the younger guys, it’s a lot easier said than done” he said. “I don’t find it as hard anymore just because I know the value of practice and of the process and executing the best we can. And I know all of our older guys do, too. It’s our job to teach it to the younger guys.”
Petras is coming off one of his best performances as Iowa’s starting quarterback, passing for 259 yards and accounting for five touchdowns in last Friday’s 51-14 drubbing at Maryland.
And he threw no interceptions, while Maryland committed seven turnovers, including six interceptions.
“That was a highlight the other night,” said Kirk Ferentz. “We were getting the turnover and there were points. That’s a good football team, what good football teams learn how to do. Getting the stop is great, getting the ball back. If you don’t show something for it.
“That’s why I reference that one sequence, that pretty much took the heart out of their football team. That bang, bang, demoralizing. Get two scores before they even snap the ball. That’s a really good deal. Kind of the same discussion as getting in the red zone. You want to come out with touchdowns if you can. Any points are better than no points, but you want to get touchdowns. Those are all good things. Opportunistic teams learn how to do that.”
Ball security has been one of Iowa’s greatest strengths so far this season, and it starts with Petras having thrown just one interception.
There have been a few fumbles by the Iowa running backs, and Petras was also sacked four times in the 27-17 win at Iowa State. But Petras has mostly avoided committing turnovers, and that has been crucial to Iowa’s success.
A team can live with a few sacks if it means no interceptions.
Story continues to below with video of Tyler Linderbaum and Spencer Petras
Petras might be too careful at times with the football. But being careful is better than being careless with the football, especially when your offense is far from explosive.
Iowa is ranked 13th in the Big Ten in total offense, averaging just 320 yards per game
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is averaging nearly 80 more passing yards per game than Petras, but Clifford also has thrown three interceptions this season, and he struggled with turnovers last season to where he was briefly benched.
Penn State also averages 418.6 yards per game, which is nearly 100 yards more than Iowa’s average of 320 yards per game.
So, one way to compensate for modest numbers on offense is to protect the football and not let turnovers become a storyline.
And that’s where Petras has excelled this season, with help from Brian Ferentz’s play calling.
The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Petras isn’t flashy, nor is he much of a threat to run. And he still struggles with accuracy and touch at times.
But Petras has protected the football and has won 11 straight games as Iowa’s starting quarterback.
That carries a lot of weight with Kirk Ferentz, as it should.
Nobody on the team, according to Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa players, is more committed or prepares harder for a game than Petras.
He knows all about Penn State’s athletic and aggressive defense, and how the Penn State defenders are similar to the Iowa defenders in how they’re opportunistic and ready to take advantage of any mistake made by the opposing offense.
Iowa leads the Big Ten with 12 interceptions, while Penn State is tied for second with Ohio State with seven interceptions.
“They’re a team that if you leave it out there for a play to be made, they’re going to make the play,” Petras said of the Penn State defense. “Whether that makes them aggressive, they pressure quite a bit. You can consider that aggressive.
“But on tape, there’s a ton of clips of the games they’ve played this year where whether a quarterback is sloppy with the ball, or a poorly thrown ball, or whatever, they take advantage. It’s kind of like our guys in that way. You can’t just be careless with the football against a team like this, especially with their talent and how sound they are schematically.”
Football is the ultimate team sport, but it’s hard to think of many big games that Iowa has won without the quarterback doing his part.
That doesn’t mean Petras will have to throw for over 300 yards against Penn State. It just means that he can’t throw the game away.
It would certainly help if the Iowa running game could do its part on Saturday because Petras is much more effective using play action.
Both teams have struggled on the ground this season with Penn State and Iowa ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, in the conference in rushing. Penn State is averaging 132.6 rushing yards per game, while Iowa is averaging 126 yards per game.
But they’re also both 5-0 and that’s as good as a team can be after five games.
“We’ve earned this, we’ve earned the right and won those five straight games,” said Iowa All-America center Tyler Linderbaum. “So, it’s going to be a good one. We’re going to have to come ready to play and we’re excited to get Kinnick packed in there and put on a show for the crowd.”
Both teams have quality punters, but Iowa might have an edge at kicker where Caleb Sudak has made 8-of-9 field-goal attempts this season.
Penn State also has arguably the top receiver in college football in junior Jahan Dotson, whereas Iowa has arguably the top secondary in the Big Ten.
Penn State is more productive on offense, but Iowa is slightly better on defense from a statistical standpoint.
The one area where Penn State can’t match Iowa is home-field advantage.
And in a game like this, home-field advantage could prove to be the difference unless turnovers take center stage.
It will be Petras’ responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen under the glare of a national spotlight.
Prediction: Iowa 23, Penn State 22