Iowa’s Spencer Petras ‘just keeps hacking’, helping Hawkeyes win games

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Spencer Petras heard calls for change midway through his sophomore season and throughout his junior year. They repeated in the second half of 2021, notably when he injured his shoulder and then midsection. But the Iowa quarterback endured through the challenges.

During the offseason, Iowa coaches looked at several quarterbacks, including at least one who was on the transfer portal. Even without a signature, the employees designed the spring training as a competition. Petras has never drifted off the top spot.

As coach Kirk Ferentz approached preseason camp, he talked about Iowa’s two fine quarterbacks, but never pushed Petras off the top line. When Petras played poorly in Iowa’s first two games, Ferentz stayed with him. Petras’ terrible first half at Ohio State led to his second-half bench press and a reassessment of position. Once again, Petras has earned the top spot in a week-long battle.

As he enters his final home game this week, Petras likely has several thoughts on his Iowa experience. Off the field, he has built relationships that will last for decades. Petras learned enough from that to carry him for the rest of his life. What he has endured – and fought through – has made him an example of perseverance. The loyalty of his teammates, on the other hand, showed what teamwork is all about, especially in defence.

“We put them in a lot of really, really difficult situations in that Ohio State game,” said Petras. “I think it would be easy for a unit to go on the offensive. But they didn’t. They certainly didn’t. They just kept going to work.

“It would be easy for an offensive unit to give up after this game. It would be easy for an offensive line to give up after everything they had last week. After that Ohio State game, it would be easy for me to give up. But we don’t. It’s not what football in Iowa is about. And it just starts with our head coach and our culture that we have developed.”

Spencer Petras has 5,190 passing yards and 24 passing touchdowns during his career in Iowa. (Matt Krohn / USA Today)

The Hawkeyes (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) fought back after shellacking in mid-October in Ohio State, where the offense ended with six turnovers, to win their last four games. They are one win away from capturing their second straight West Division title and taking another trip to Indianapolis to contend for the Big Ten championship. This doesn’t happen by accident. While the stats don’t show anything dynamic, the importance of Petras in the trend reversal cannot be underestimated. His precision and discipline have become the main reasons Iowa is in the position for the second year in a row.

In Iowa’s last four games, Petras has completed 63 percent of his passes for 727 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Hawkeyes have outscored their opponents 94-36, with a premium placed on ball safety and scoring when opportunities arise. In the four-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes have converted 12 of their 13 red-zone possessions into points, with the only non-scoring trip coming on the final possession of the game in a 24-10 win over Wisconsin.

Equally important, Iowa has only one turnover in that time span. With Petras, the staff implemented a risk-averse strategy with a premium on maintaining possession and providing a solid field position for defense. Iowa has dropped 13 or fewer points in nine games, including 10 or fewer in eight contests. The key to Iowa’s offense under Petras is sometimes restraint. The weather and opponent success on both sides of the ball affect offensive play, and Petras understands strategy.

“I think it just depends on the flow of the game,” said Petras. “I know that if we’re ahead by a certain amount we’re still going to be aggressive, but we have to have a pretty good confidence in all aspects of how we’re going to be played and what we’re going to see and our ability to execute. If there’s something that’s giving us problems, whether it’s that I see specific coverage that might come up or if it’s a specific pressure or front that we might struggle with up front, something like that in the Art, then I think that’s an addition variable.”

At Purdue, the Hawkeyes took a 24-3 lead early in the third quarter with wind gusts reaching 50 mph. The only way the Boilermakers could make a run that day was through an Iowa offensive error. Petras completed only 3 of 8 passes with multiple throws in the second half. It made for a conservative and maybe boring playstyle, but it was effective in winning the game.

“Three touchdowns in the fourth quarter definitely factored in the way our defense played,” said Petras. “The game is a good example. I think if the wind hadn’t been such a factor, it probably would have been a little different. In this game, if I’m throwing a ball that’s usually an extremely high percentage and suddenly it gets caught in the wind and goes on defense, it could be a completely different game. There is no way to think in the moment. It’s no way to play. But in hindsight, that’s definitely part of it.”

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Maybe it’s not the most comfortable way to play quarterback or another skill position. But victory is the ultimate goal, and with Iowa’s attacking lineup, playing to the strength of the team is best. Petras has been handling these tasks better lately than at any time in his career. In just one other four-game stretch, Petras has completed more than 63 percent, but he threw two interceptions in that sequence.

“I think Spencer is doing a great job of taking what the defense is giving him,” said tight end Sam LaPorta. “He never tries to force anything.”

In Petras’ 30 games as the team’s starting quarterback, Iowa is 20-10. He has 5,190 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and 19 interceptions while completing 57 percent of his passes. He’s also rushed for 11 touchdowns, mostly on quarterback sneaks.

The number will not earn Petras a vote across all conferences, nor any lasting statistical legacy. But his upstanding character, resilience, and leadership skills are reasons he keeps getting started despite a mountain of adversity. His intangibles are also a reason Iowa could win another Big Ten championship game against Nebraska on Friday.

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“I think the most important attribute to be good at anything that’s challenging and tough is mental toughness,” Ferentz said. “When you want to do something that’s hard to do — and playing quarterback at that level is really difficult — boy, if you don’t have that, it gets hard to be good because you’re going to have tough times, and he had more than his share. Some of his own accord and other things he couldn’t do anything about.

“But I’m telling you, he stays positive, he’s a great teammate and just keeps hitting and somehow we’ve won a lot of games when he’s in there. This hasn’t been an easy year for anyone and he would probably be first on the list for that I think. Really, it’s his credit to just keep moving forward.”

(Top Photo: Matthew Holst/Getty Images)