Analysis: After down-and-up game in up-and-down year, Iowa QB Spencer Petras still an uncertainty

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Spencer Petras has completed eight games as Iowa’s starting quarterback, and it’s still difficult to get a read on his ceiling.

We do know that the Hawkeyes have won six of the eight games. We can say that Petras outplayed his counterparts in three of them (Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin).

But it’s also true that Petras has yet to put together a complete game. He sometimes started strong and struggled late (particularly against Northwestern and Minnesota). The past two games, he was terrible early but eventually found a rhythm.

After the Week 2 loss to the Wildcats, which ended up deciding the Big Ten West title, Petras wasn’t asked to do as much. And, within the framework of the offense, he avoided crippling mistakes, with only two interceptions and a pair of fumbles during Iowa’s six-game winning streak.

Petras has completed 140 of 245 passes (57.1%) for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. That’s a 119 efficiency rating that puts him in the bottom half of Big Ten quarterbacks.

It’s also why you can expect an open competition at the quarterback spot next spring, with Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan in the mix, and perhaps a transfer if the Hawkeyes really don’t feel they have the answer at the most important position on the current roster.

Petras hasn’t done enough to lose the job. But he needs to show more in order to prove he deserves to keep it. That’s the nature of competition, and he undoubtedly understands that.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras completed 14 of 25 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns Saturday in a home win over Wisconsin. Like most games for Petras in his debut season as the Hawkeye starter, there was a mixture of good and bad. Where does that leave him as the regular season ends? Likely in a competition next spring to prove that he deserves to keep the job.

Last week against Illinois, Petras seemed to take an important step forward, rebounding from an abysmal first quarter to rally the No. 18 Hawkeyes (6-2) to a 35-21 win.

On Saturday in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin, Petras followed a similar pattern. This time, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz seemed to give him a little longer leash in the second half. Maybe that’s a sign that he is gaining some trust.

Petras had only 87 passing yards at halftime. Iowa led just 6-0, and it seemed like a minor miracle that the Hawkeyes had even gotten those two Keith Duncan field goals. They were just 1-for-9 on third down. Petras credited a strong Badgers’ defense for keeping the Hawkeyes at bay early.

More:Iowa's Keith Duncan reaches out to all who helped memorable Hawkeye season happen

But it also revealed some of the same limitations in Petras’ game that have been apparent all year. He threw one pass far out of bounds to earn a mystifying intentional grounding penalty. He still seems jittery when forced to work through his progressions. Nor does he appear to have the leeway, or maybe the knowledge, to check into new plays at the line of scrimmage.

There are growing pains associated with becoming a quality starting quarterback, to be sure. Petras has seemed to be pained by all of them this year.

But give him credit for some of the terrific throws he has made, including a 19-yard touchdown to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on Saturday that put Iowa ahead 14-0 en route to a 28-7 win over Wisconsin.

Earlier:Smith-Marsette is the pulse of Iowa's offense, and he's eager to show it on the big stage

That pass came three plays after Petras had connected for a 38-yarder to Smith-Marsette in the middle of the field. It should have been a touchdown, Petras said later, but he underthrew the ball. Still, it was a long completion, an explosive play that the Iowa passing game has been lacking this year. So take that as progress.

“We liked our matchups just across the board because we have a lot of confidence in our receiving corps,” Petras said. “If you want to play man coverage against Ihmir, you can get burned.”

It was that coverage that Petras recognized pre-snap before deciding that Smith-Marsette was his first option.

It was a precursor to a 53-yard scoring pass — the longest of Petras’ career — to Smith-Marsette, who had gotten behind Badger defenders and had so much room to head into the end zone that he decided to celebrate with an ill-fated front flip.

Petras was on target with that throw. This is worth noting. It hasn’t been all bad for Petras, despite the clamor among some Hawkeye fans to pull the plug on his Hawkeye career and try someone, anyone, else.

Leistikow's thoughts: More on big plays that overwhelmed Wisconsin

Petras completed 14 of 25 passes for 211 yards and those two scores against the Badgers. Those are not great statistics, but they were winning numbers. And that’s the bottom line.

Petras has carried himself as a leader all season. He never takes credit for success, instead giving it to his receivers and his offensive line. On Saturday, he practically yelled himself hoarse running downfield to celebrate each touchdown with his teammates. He seems to have the confidence of the locker room.

Certainly, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has professed his belief in Petras all year, beginning last winter when he was anointed the successor to Nate Stanley. Ferentz has never benched Petras, either, which could be a damaging blow to his psyche.

Instead, he’s ridden through the highs and lows with an inexperienced quarterback, relying on a strong rushing game and top-tier defense to win games.

Where does this leave Petras? As the starting quarterback for the last game or two of this unusual season. And then with a full offseason to try to prove he is more than what he showed in 2020.

The problem for Petras is that he will have to prove it without his two top wide receivers (Brandon Smith and Smith-Marsette) and perhaps his two best blockers (Alaric Jackson and Tyler Linderbaum).                                                                         

It’s not ideal. But nothing about this year has been.

When will the real Spencer Petras stand up? Or have we already seen him?

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.