By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – When it comes to handling his quarterbacks, Kirk Ferentz is either incredibly loyal or stubborn to where he prevents the offense from evolving.
Those two arguments will meet head on this coming week as Ferentz decides which quarterback deserves to start against Minnesota on Saturday.
If Spencer Petras is unable to play due to what has been described, but not confirmed as a shoulder injury, then Alex Padilla would make his first career start against Minnesota.
Padilla, a third-year sophomore from Greenwood Village, Colorado, replaced Petras late in the first quarter of Saturday’s 17-12 victory at Northwestern, and the offense responded immediately in a positive way, scoring touchdowns on the first two possessions with Padilla behind center.
At halftime, it felt as if Petras, a fourth-year junior from San Rafael, California, might never start another game for the Hawkeyes because of how well Padilla had performed in the second quarter.
The offense would go on to sputter for much of the second half, but that was partly due to a very conservative and safe approach to play calling.
Padilla didn’t do much in the second half as a passer because Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who is Kirk Ferentz’s son, didn’t ask him to do much.
Iowa’s biggest opponent in the second half seemed to be the clock in that the game couldn’t end soon enough for Brian Ferentz.
It seemed that Iowa played more not to lose in the second half than to win, and that made it harder for Padilla to help his cause.
A Petras supporter would point out that he is 12-4 in games that he has started and finished dating back to last season, and that Padilla had his success against one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten, and with help from a productive running game, which rarely has been the case for Petras, and that it was just one game.
A Padilla supporter would point on that the Iowa passing attack has been a slow and frustrating work in progress with Petras running the offense, that Padilla can throw better on the run, and that Padilla is shiftier and more elusive in the pocket, giving the offense more flexibility and a better chance to do something when a play breaks down.
This isn’t uncharted territory for Kirk Ferentz, but it’s close to being that, considering he hasn’t benched a veteran starter at quarterback since moving C.J. Beathard ahead of Jake Rudock just days after the end of the 2014 season.
You’d have to go all the way back to the 2008 season to mark the last time that Kirk Ferentz made a quarterback switch during the season when he benched Jake Christensen in favor of Ricky Stanzi.
In both cases, the switch at quarterback paid dividends as Stanzi and Beathard both would go on to have individual and team success.
So that’s another factor that Padilla’s supporters could point to in that, sometimes, making a change at quarterback is the best solution.
Ferentz praised both of his quarterbacks during his post-game press conference on Saturday and gave no hint as to which way he might be leaning.
“I certainly thought (Alex) did a lot of good things on the field tonight, most importantly just moving the ball, driving and us scoring,” Kirk Ferentz said. “But the rest of it is you really can’t downgrade Spencer because he couldn’t play full speed and we’ve got a couple other guys in that same category.
“So, I admire Spencer for giving it a try and he gave it his best try. So, we’ll just see where that is next week and then in the meantime, it’s great to see Alex get some experience and be successful.”
Based on Kirk Ferentz’s track record, it would seem more likely that Petras would start against Minnesota if he is healthy enough to play.
It took two seasons for Ferentz to finally pull the plug on Rudock as the starter, and it took until the fifth game in 2008 before Ferentz finally made Stanzi the full-time starter over Christensen, who had started every game in 2007.
Perhaps it’s a case in which Petras and Padilla will have a chance to compete for the starting position this coming week in practice now that Padilla has proven himself in a game.
“We’ll look at the film and see what we think,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I know this; I know Spencer has led us to a lot of victories, and tonight Alex did.
“So, to me that’s a good situation and I’m really proud of Alex for what he did and really proud of all the things Spencer has done over the last two years as well. So, we’ll just take it a day at a time and hopefully, pardon the pun, a healthy situation for us.”
Iowa is currently one of four teams in the Big Ten West Division, along with Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota, with a 4-2 record in conference play, although, Wisconsin and Purdue both have a win over Iowa.
Rock-solid defense and reliable special teams have kept Iowa in the race, and it would be a shame if a struggling offense prevented this team from reaching its potential.
So why not give Padilla a role moving forward as long as he continues to provide a spark?
That doesn’t mean bench Petras, but rather figure a way to use them both without it hurting the offensive rhythm and cohesion, both of which have been in short supply this season.
Petras has been the focus for much of the blame on offense, but the offensive line also has struggled in both run blocking and pass protection, and the play calling has been suspect at times.
Kirk Ferentz never has shown much of a willingness to use more than one quarterback when a game still is in doubt. It’s just not the way he operates.
But maybe this is one of those rare situations where Ferentz will make an exception.
Maybe Padilla showed Ferentz enough in Saturday’s win to where Ferentz might be more willing to give Padilla a chance if Petras is struggling, a chance meaning at least a possession or two.
Ferentz would be showing his confidence in Padilla without giving up on Petras.
Iowa would also have two quarterbacks with different playing styles, and that would force defenses to adjust on the spot.
Padilla is only listed at 6-foot-1, and is about four inches shorter than the 6-5, 233-pound Petras. Padilla’s ability to throw on the run was developed partly out of necessity.
Padilla isn’t a dual-threat quarterback, but he is more elusive than Petras, and that matters in today’s game in which defenses are fast and aggressive.
The circumstances are different now that Padilla has a victory under his belt. Fans don’t get to see what happens in practice, but they did watch Padilla rise to the occasion against Northwestern and many liked what they saw, even with the second-half struggles, and with it being Northwestern’s below average defense.
It’s Kirk Ferentz’s job to play who he feels gives Iowa the best chance of winning.
For at least one quarter against Northwestern, Padilla seemed to fit that description with how the offense rallied behind him.
Ferentz would have a public relations disaster on his hands if he sticks exclusively with Petras, but the offense still struggles.
Padilla deserves a chance to contribute in some way besides just being the backup who hardly ever plays.