Holiday Bowl thoughts: On Spencer Petras' progress as backup QB, Brian Ferentz play-calling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

SAN DIEGO — Iowa’s football team practiced through about 45 minutes of a cold, steady rain at Mesa Community College before the skies cleared and allowed for a final hour of solid work without precipitation.

“The start, it felt like we were back in spring ball — a March day in Iowa,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said following one of the final team practices before Friday’s Holiday Bowl matchup against USC.

As the 9-3 Hawkeyes buttoned up their gameplan for the 8-4 Trojans, the Monday media focus was on the offensive side of the football. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz met the media for the first time since Iowa's 3-0 start in September.

Here are some things that stuck out from that conversation, plus some injury updates from the head man.

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, left, presides over practice Monday at San Diego's Mesa College.

Spencer Petras has progressed nicely as Iowa’s No. 2 quarterback.

The redshirt freshman, who is Iowa’s lone California native on the roster, hasn’t been needed for any meaningful snaps this season. But he almost accrued some in the fourth quarter at Nebraska, after Nate Stanley (a senior who will make his 39th consecutive start Friday) turned an ankle.

Brian Ferentz, who works from the sidelines, said he wouldn’t have changed a thing if Petras had to go in the game. That is a strong endorsement of the progress Petras has made in practices.

“We were ready to move on if we needed to (in Lincoln),” Ferentz said. “We were going through the calls together. There was nothing that wasn’t going to be on the menu.”

Petras, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound product of San Rafael, will be a much-discussed Hawkeye entity in the spring as Iowa will need a new starting quarterback for the first time since 2017. He’ll be the slight front-runner in a battle that will include Peyton Mansell and Alex Padilla this spring (and eventually incoming freshman Deuce Hogan).

From what Petras’ offensive coordinator said Monday, Iowa fans can be encouraged about what’s next.

“It’s like we talked about with Nate, the hardest part of being quarterback here is the amount of pressure that’s put on you to execute the entire offense and the amount of control you have doing it,” Ferentz said. “I think the development you’ve seen with Spencer over two years is he’s starting to get to the mastery of the system. He can improvise and ad lib a little, and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Iowa backup quarterback Spencer Petras (7) throws a pass during Monday's practice.

In a perfect world, Iowa would run the ball 70% of the time.

“That’d mean we were winning all the time,” Brian Ferentz said, “in control of the game. But the reality is, across the 12-game schedule it’s just not going to look like that.”

The Hawkeyes have been more pass-heavy this year, with their strength being in Stanley’s right arm and an improved receiving corps. Barring a monster game in the Holiday Bowl, Iowa will finish with below 150 rushing yards per game for the third consecutive season. It wants to be closer to 200.

However, there’s a lot to like about Tyler Goodson, as most of you reading this know. Iowa is 3-0 with wins against then-No. 7 Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska since the true freshman from Georgia became the starting running back.

Ferentz was asked about what sparked him to make that transition, after he had given Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young the bulk of the first-half carries in Iowa’s first nine games of the season.

“We didn’t want to overload him early, but we knew he was going to play,” Ferentz said. “He did, and I thought he acquitted himself pretty early in the year. Made some big plays. But he also made some freshman plays, some mistakes that certainly hurt us in ballgames.”

Goodson was charged with a key fumble against Penn State and had a pass bounce off his arms for an interception against Purdue. But when you see the burst he showed in his 55-yard touchdown at Nebraska (a season-long run for any Hawkeye), there’s no doubt Iowa’s running game has its best chance to succeed with No. 15 in the backfield.

How would Ferentz assess his play-calling in Year 3 as coordinator?

“I don’t know,” he said. “We won nine games. I don’t know what other metrics to go off of.

“I’ve said it before, but when you think about an offensive identity, it’s really simple every week. We have to do our job to help us win the football game. In the three games we lost (Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin), I don’t think I did a good job. In the nine games we won, I did enough. The whole goal is to be better every time out.”

Ferentz did point to one area he wanted to be better at this season: distributing the ball to many of his players. And he was: Four wide receivers have had at least 33 catches, and three running backs have run for 400-plus yards.

“Balance changes week to week,” Ferentz said. “I think (Washington State coach) Mike Leach said it best, talking about balance. You need to make sure guys touch the ball. In that regard, I think we were fairly balanced. The run-pass thing. I think we want to run the ball. I don’t think that, I know that.”

Brandon Smith is practicing with the first team.

The Hawkeyes’ No. 1 “X” receiver looks like he’s ready to be full speed in a game for the first time since a serious ankle injury Oct. 19 against Purdue that required surgery.

“I feel better today (about Smith’s status) than last time I saw you guys,” Kirk Ferentz said, referencing a media gaggle a week ago. “He’s practicing right now and seems to be doing well.

“Anything can happen between now and game time, but that’s encouraging.”

That would give Iowa a huge lift. Smith was playing at a high level before his injury, with 33 catches for 407 yards in seven games. He still is tied for the team lead with four receiving touchdowns.

Freshman wideout Nico Ragaini (team-high 44 catches) painted a positive picture of how well Smith is going.

“He looks fresh-legged. All of us are pretty sore from the whole season," Ragaini said. "He’s coming out, flying around and everything. He looks better than he was before.”

Ferentz also affirmed that every player made the trip — meaning no roster departures. That’s good news, although transfers usually surface in January.

But be aware: Not all is perfect on the injury front.

“Had a couple guys twist an ankle (Sunday) and things like that,” the head coach said without specifying who. "But hopefully the guys will be ready to go.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.