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Leistikow: Spencer Petras' best game endears himself to Hawkeye fans, teammates

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As Spencer Petras returned to the Iowa sideline after his beautiful touchdown pass to Shaun Beyer, his third of the game at Memorial Stadium and a borderline game-clincher, a welcoming line of Hawkeyes rushed to greet him.

Among those who sought out the Hawkeyes’ sophomore quarterback: fifth-year senior defensive ends Chauncey Golston and Zach VanValkenburg, wanting to make sure Petras felt the love.

Criticize Petras’ performance all you want from the first 25 quarters of Iowa’s season. But try and criticize him to the face of 100-plus Hawkeyes who believe in him. You can’t dispute that the redhead, (Grateful) Deadhead Californian has an innate leadership trait among Hawkeye players that has won over the locker room. His teammates like him. He inspires them. During the early stages of Saturday’s 35-21 win, Petras was bouncing around the Iowa sidelines — telling players on both sides of the ball that things would get better, even though the Hawkeyes had slipped into a 14-0 hole.

“I was just telling them to stay with it,” Petras said. “Obviously, it can’t be fun for them when I’m struggling. Just had to make sure they stayed in high energy and kept the faith."

Whether Kirk Ferentz would admit it or not, the wheels had to be turning in the head coach's head about a possible quarterback change to Alex Padilla after Iowa sputtered in the first quarter in Champaign. Petras was missing badly on throws. It looked like he was the weak link, again, for the Hawkeyes' offense.

Spencer Petras sings the Iowa fight song after the Hawkeyes' 35-21 win at Illinois. Petras improved to 5-2 as a starter (all in Big Ten play) with the win.

“We weren’t even spinning our tires. Our tires weren’t moving. We were stuck,” Ferentz said. “And it was not pretty. You start having dark thoughts when those things happen. It’s like, ‘OK, maybe not our day.’ That’s why the games are 60 minutes. That’s why you keep playing.”

Down 14-0, Iowa was facing a third-and-12 from Illinois’ 42-yard line. To that point, midway through the second quarter, Petras was 3-for-7 for 35 yards and Iowa’s only good offensive play had been a pass to the fullback. Twice, Petras underthrew running back Tyler Goodson on short passes.

“Definitely a slow start. We all felt it,” Petras said. “Obviously, I felt it, missing some easy throws and struggling to get into a rhythm.”

After a 9-yard dump-off to Goodson, Petras faced a fourth-and-3 from Illinois’ 33. Ferentz decided to go for the first down, rather than kick. It was almost like a litmus test. I remember thinking at that point: If Iowa doesn’t convert this, Ferentz has little choice but to try Padilla. Especially after this drive started at Iowa’s own 48-yard line, and the offense was struggling against the Big Ten Conference’s 13th-ranked defense.

But in a shotgun formation, Petras kept his poise. The call was for Ihmir Smith-Marsette to run a quick out route from the slot. But it wasn’t there. Uh-oh.

“The corner was sitting outside of him,” Petras said, revisiting his thought process. “We kind of did a little backyard football move. He just sat down in the hole. And thanks to the O-line I was able to get him a ball (that) he could catch and go. It was a big turning point, a big play.”

Petras' ball was crisp, on the money. Smith-Marsette picked up 11 crucial yards.

On the next play, Petras winged a toss over the middle to Sam LaPorta for a 22-yard touchdown. LaPorta was so wide open, the sophomore joked that fellow tight end Beyer was the closest person to tackling him.

“That first touchdown was huge,” LaPorta said. “From there, we just took off.”

Spencer Petras had good pass protection most of the day against Illinois.

Petras wound up completing 15 of his final 21 passes for 185 yards with three touchdowns. That computes to a 192.6 quarterback rating, a vast improvement from the 107.7 he had entering the game. And those throws, particularly in the second half, were increasingly accurate and productive. Iowa averaged 6.94 yards per play in the third quarter; 9.15 in the fourth.

After the halftime break, Petras completed his first six pass attempts for 59 yards. Those stats don't include a savvy checkdown to Goodson to convert a two-point conversion that gave Iowa 21-14 lead with 8:19 left in the third quarter.

“As things got rolling, his confidence grew,” said center Tyler Linderbaum, Petras’ roommate and close friend.

Petras’ first multi-touchdown game of the year was just what Iowa (5-2) needed. The Hawkeyes have been one of the feelgood stories in this Big Ten season and are just one of four conference teams with a winning record. Up next: A Wisconsin team (2-2) that Iowa hasn't beaten since 2015.

Petras hasn't necessarily arrived as Iowa's quarterback in the minds of Iowa fans. Saturday's 18-for-28, 220-yard performance was nice, his best game of the season. But if Iowa loses to Wisconsin for the fifth straight year in the battle for the Heartland Trophy, Saturday's progress for Petras would be quickly forgotten.

"Every game’s (an) education, every minute you play, every series, every possession," Ferentz said. "We’re playing a young quarterback right now. This will be really valuable for him.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.