Big passing numbers are elusive, but Spencer Petras has Hawkeyes on three-game win streak
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Spencer Petras was part of Iowa football history Saturday, even though he kept downplaying his contribution.
The Hawkeye quarterback had a modest statistical line — 18 completions in 28 pass attempts for 186 yards. He nearly threw a touchdown, but tight end Sam LaPorta was ruled down a foot shy of the end zone. He nearly threw an interception, but Penn State’s Jaquan Brister couldn’t hold on to a pass that was underthrown.
What Petras did have was a 41-21 victory over the Nittany Lions, the first by a Hawkeye team in seven meetings. And he had the honor of being the quarterback who handed longtime Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz his 100th victory in Big Ten Conference play.
“All week, we’ve been saying how much respect we have for this program. They’re a great program, historic program,” Petras said of Penn State, which fell to 0-5 for the first time. “This is special. No player on this team had ever beaten Penn State, and they’re a good football team. It was hard all game and a great team win.”
It was Iowa’s third consecutive victory after starting the season 0-2. It came with four rushing touchdowns, including one by Petras on a three-yard quarterback sneak, if that’s still the term for what Iowa does better than any team in America. There’s actually nothing sneaky about it. Petras simply burrowed into the end zone behind the blocking of center Tyler Linderbaum and guard Kody Ince. He could have gained six yards if need be.
“It’s not me, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not the strongest of the litter,” Petras said of his third career touchdown run. “I’ll take those guys against anyone.”
Next, Petras will take them against Nebraska, a team Iowa has defeated five times in a row. It’s the opposite scenario of what the Hawkeyes just faced, so they should know how badly the Cornhuskers want to end that skid when the teams meet at noon Friday in Kinnick Stadium. The game will be televised on Fox.
Nebraska is 1-3 after being gouged for 285 rushing yards in a 41-23 loss to Illinois on Saturday. Starting quarterback Luke McCaffrey was intercepted three times and eventually benched.
If that sounds like the makings of an easy Hawkeye win, senior wide receiver Brandon Smith was cautioning his teammates that nothing is as simple as it appears. Iowa has won its three games by 90 points. But there’s no room for complacency now, Smith said.
“We see what we can do. We see how we can perform on the field,” he said. “We can’t settle. We can’t think that we’ve made it, by any means. We’ve got to just carry this into next week.”
Iowa ran for 175 yards against Penn State, led by 101 from backup tailback Mekhi Sargent. It’s the running game that has made things more comfortable for Petras in recent weeks. Against the Nittany Lions, Petras converted only three of eight third downs on which he dropped back to pass. But that was plenty in a game in which Iowa raced to a 31-7 lead in the third quarter.
“It opens up the play-action game. It slows the rush down. It makes the linebackers late in their drops,” Petras said of Iowa’s ability to run. “It helps our rhythm offensively. It’s huge.”
Petras’s best throw Saturday came on a second-and-16 from Penn State’s 39-yard line. He connected with wide receiver Nico Ragaini for 26 yards en route to a touchdown that put the Hawkeyes ahead 17-7. Ragaini was Iowa’s leading receiver, with four catches for 46 yards.
“They were playing low safety. Nico did a good job hitting the seam and made my job easy. The line did a good job blocking,” Petras said. “Just throw and catch.”
Smith, who caught three passes for 27 yards Saturday, said the receivers are getting used to finding other ways to help Iowa win, like run-blocking.
“Naturally, as a receiver, we want to be the guys with the ball and make plays,” Smith said. “As long as we’re keeping the train rolling and the team is winning, we’re fine as well.”
Smith was happy to finally have a win over Penn State to his credit, after three previous failures, some in excruciating fashion.
He said the receivers are concentrating on helping Petras become a better quarterback and not worrying about individual stats. Smith knows that, with the season heading into its frigid stretch run, Iowa’s running game will remain paramount.
Ferentz said so as well.
“We’re going to play a couple of games in December, which is unusual. A running game sure does help,” he said.
Iowa rushed for 225 yards last Black Friday in a 27-24 win at Nebraska. That’ll no doubt be the formula again for the Hawkeyes. Petras will be asked to manage things accordingly, convert a third-down here and there, not commit a costly turnover.
Ferentz has been pleased with how his Hawkeyes have responded from that 0-2 start. Along the way, they earned a school-record sixth consecutive win over Minnesota (35-7 on Nov. 13). They snapped their worst losing streak against Penn State at six games. And now they’re aiming to extend a program-best stretch against Nebraska to six wins.
“It just means a job well done,” Ferentz said of Saturday’s impressive showing at Beaver Stadium.
“All the things that we thought were important going into the game, our guys did a really good job of covering.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.