By Pat Harty
EVANSTON, Illinois – Kirk Ferentz will ultimately decide who starts at quarterback for the Iowa football team in next Saturday’s game against Minnesota.
But even if Spencer Petras isn’t healthy enough to face the Gophers due to an apparent shoulder injury, sophomore backup Alex Padilla showed in Saturday’s 17-12 victory over Northwestern that he can provide a spark.
After watching Petras struggle just to throw a pass during Iowa’s first three possessions of the game, Ferentz had seen enough.
Padilla replaced Petras late in the first quarter and the switch, which many fans had been clamoring for in the wake of back-to-back losses to Purdue and Wisconsin, produced immediate results as Padilla would go on to lead Iowa on a 58-yard touchdown drive that was capped by junior running back Tyler Goodson scoring on a 13-yard run.
“It was definitely a confidence boost,” Padilla said. “We were struggling a little bit the first couple of drives. So being able to come in and get a touchdown was huge.”
Iowa then marched 83 yards on nine plays for another touchdown on its second possession with Padilla at quarterback.
Freshman receiver Arland Bruce finished the drive by scoring on a 10-yard end sweep in which he stumbled before regaining his balance and diving into the end zone.
“I was really pleased and proud with how he prepared and performed on the field tonight,” Kirk Ferentz said of Padilla. “I admire Spencer for giving it a try. In the meantime it was good to see Alex go out and be successful.”
By halftime, social media was a buzz with fans celebrating the switch at quarterback, and with some assuming that Padilla would be the starter moving forward regardless of Petras’ health status.
That’s a huge assumption with Petras having started 17 consecutive games and with him slowed by an injury.
But there is no denying that the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Padilla provided a much-needed boost for the offense, especially in the first half.
“You just have to be ready and waiting for your opportunity,” Padilla said. “I have a great group of guys around me.”
Padilla didn’t have to wait long on Saturday as it was abundantly clear that Petras was hampered by an injury.
Kirk Ferentz rarely switches quarterbacks during a game, but he had no choice on Saturday with Petras barely able to throw.
“It was kind of out of the blue,” Padilla said. “I didn’t have time to think about it. I just had to go out there and make a play.”
Petras still played a key role after being lifted from the game.
“He was giving me a whole bunch of tips because this was my first real action,” Padilla said. “He’s a great player, great teammate. I spend more time with him than anyone else.”
Asked about Petras’ status moving forward, Kirk Ferentz said:
“I don’t think it’s anything major, just something you got to work through. Hopefully, Monday, Tuesday he will be ready to go.”
But if Petras isn’t ready to play against Minnesota next Saturday, Iowa now has a backup quarterback with some valuable game experience.
“You never know when you’re going to get an opportunity,” Padilla said. “I took a few reps with the starters this week, but you have to prepare every week like you’re the starter.”
Judging from how well Padilla played in the first half, he seemed ready for the challenge.
The offense struggled for most of the second half, but it didn’t matter as the Iowa defense kept Northwestern out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter.
Iowa also had three interceptions, including two by safety Dane Belton. Sophomore cornerback Jermari Harris also had his first career interception while making his second career start.
Padilla played with poise and confidence in the first half and his presence seemed to energize the offense. That happens, sometimes, when a new quarterback enters the game, but Padilla also deserves credit for making some nice throws and for not trying to force anything.
Padilla benefitted from a strong ground attack as Iowa finished with 185 rushing yards, including 141 by Goodson on 21 attempts.
Bruce and fellow freshman receiver Keagan Johnson also provided a spark for an offense that had performed woefully in the losses to Purdue and Wisconsin by scores of 24-7 and 27-7, respectively.
Johnson finished with a career-high five catches for 58 yards, while Bruce had three catches for 30 yards, to go along with his 10-yard touchdown run.
My gut feeling is that Petras will start against Minnesota if he’s healthy enough to play, but Ferentz might be more willing to make a switch after watching Padilla get the job done against Northwestern.
Iowa still struggled with clock management at times in Saturday’s game, especially on its final possession of the second quarter when Iowa drove to near midfield before running out of time to even attempt a field goal.
In the second half, Iowa became conservative on offense and Padilla wasn’t asked to do much as a passer.
The Colorado native completed 18-of-28 passes and finished with 172 passing yards and zero interceptions.
It was far from being a dominant performance, but Padilla did enough to help Iowa win.
His teammates also seemed to rally behind Padilla, which is a positive sign.
It’s premature to say that Iowa has a quarterback controversy. But Iowa does have a backup quarterback who now has a victory under his belt.
And that’s significant.