Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Spencer Petras' interception-free streak is best in the Kirk Ferentz era
IOWA CITY — Spencer Petras constantly operates with ball security in his mind. He knows the math and knows as Iowa’s starting quarterback that he is the most important factor on the team when it comes to avoiding turnovers.
“That’s probably my No. 1 job,” Petras said Tuesday ahead of sixth-ranked Iowa’s 2:30 p.m. Saturday game against visiting Colorado State. “I think our number now is there’s a 98% chance if we don’t turn the ball over on offense, we win the game at Iowa. Not turning the ball over is huge.”
Petras has trust in the coaching staff for many reasons, but his lack of interceptions is high on the list. The redshirt junior has now thrown 154 consecutive passes without being intercepted, the longest streak of the 23-year Kirk Ferentz era.
That’s right, he’s even exceeded his two starting-QB predecessors who were both stingy with turnovers. The longest interception-free streak of Nate Stanley’s 39-start Iowa career was 147 consecutive passes, during the early portion of 2017.
The longest streak of C.J. Beathard’s career was 145 consecutive passes, during the 2015 season — a stirring stretch from the second quarter of that year’s Northwestern game to the second quarter of the Big Ten Championship Game (on a fluky goal-line deflection) against Michigan State. If you’ll recall, Beathard was dealing with a sports-hernia injury during the back half of that 12-0 regular season. It goes to show that even if the quarterback is limited, protecting the football is often good enough to produce wins.
Beathard went interception-free for five straight games in 2015. Stanley twice went four straight games without a pick; Brad Banks did, too, in 2002. Ricky Stanzi maxed out at three straight. The great Drew Tate never went more than two starts in a row without an interception.
Petras on Saturday has a chance to become the first Iowa starting QB under Ferentz to make it six games in a row.
It’s a statistic that Petras deserves credit for and a big reason that he has won nine consecutive starts after losing his first two. Petras has thrown 10 touchdowns vs. two interceptions during Iowa's win streak.
Against Kent State last week, the Golden Flashes were leading the country with eight interceptions. Petras was clean with all 36 of his passing attempts, with only one (a right-side throw to Nico Ragaini) being contested for a pickoff.
“Decision-making and ball placement, that’s all interceptions are,” said Petras, whose last interception occurred in the second quarter vs. Nebraska in the sixth game of 2020. “Either it’s a bad decision or poorly thrown ball. … I’m working on that every single play. That’s the goal.”
Going against Iowa’s first-team defense in practice helps, too. Phil Parker’s group salivates at the thought of creating turnovers, and that mentality puts pressure on Petras and the Hawkeye offense to make good decisions.
“Any time we’re competing against the first defense, they’re always ripping it out,” said Petras, who hasn’t lost a fumble since Week 5 of the 2020 season at Penn State. “After the whistle, 10 seconds, they’re going to try to follow you and get the ball out.”
When Petras throws the ball out of bounds on third down, there can be some groans. But remember, too, he is operating with the added bonus that Iowa has rock-solid special-teamers like punter Tory Taylor and placekicker Caleb Shudak.
“When you have a great punter (and) it’s third-and-7 and nothing’s there, don’t force something. Let’s not turn the ball over,” Petras said. “Let’s let Tory punt it to the minus-5, right? That’s huge."
Ivory Kelly-Martin continues to get votes of confidence.
The fifth-year senior running back was praised by Ferentz during Saturday’s postgame media session vs. Kent State, even after he fumbled twice (and lost one) against the Golden Flashes.
“He's a very talented running back, he's made a lot of good plays for us, and he's just got to work through it, and he will,” Ferentz said. “He's a high-caliber guy.”
Though Kelly-Martin was replaced by freshman Gavin Williams as Iowa’s backup running back, he’s seemingly regained that No. 2 job. He is still the backup to Tyler Goodson the depth chart and said Tuesday, “I’m in the game-plan still, and I’m going to get good work this week. I’ve got to continue to show my ability.
“I shouldn’t feel down about anything. There’s still so much I can give.”
Why did Kirk Ferentz use the word “dumb” 10 times in one minute Tuesday?
Because the question was about what happened on the fake-punt call with Iowa leading Kent State, 23-7, in the fourth quarter. Punter Tory Taylor completed a pass to tight end Sam LaPorta for 3 yards … on fourth-and-9 with 11 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game.
“That’s called bad coaching. Right here. I’ll take that one. It was dumb,” Ferentz said. “It was really dumb. It was a dumb sequence.”
The decision didn’t come up in Ferentz’s postgame news conference, considering it didn’t affect the outcome as Kent State netted just one yard on four ensuing plays.
“If there’s only one positive, it’s on film now so people will (wonder) if we’re going to fake a punt,” Ferentz said. “And in that case they’ll say, I hope they do in that situation. That’d be great.
“Did I say it was dumb?”
“Easy to laugh when you win, right?”
Iowa’s rotation of six wide receivers will continue.
And when the Hawkeyes often go with two tight ends, snap counts can be precious for the wideouts.
Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Charlie Jones have started all three games; Nico Ragaini has started two and Jackson Ritter one. True freshmen Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson got their most extensive action of the season Saturday against Kent State.
Under Ferentz, Iowa usually zeroes in on three to four core guys at wideout. Six is a big number, but it’s one the head coach is comfortable with. It seems as if he's waiting for a player or two to break out and wants to give them all a chance to do so.
Tracy leads the receivers with nine catches; Ragaini has seven. Jones had a sensational touchdown grab at Iowa State. Ritter has two clutch catches along the sideline. Bruce got his first career reception Saturday; Johnson is still looking for his.
“We don’t have a master plan right now. We’re just playing it week by week, day by day,” Ferentz said. “As long as those guys practice well, they’re going to keep being in there.”
It was a great weekend for the Big Ten; but it makes Iowa’s road tougher.
The first three full weeks of Big Ten football have offered some surprise revelations, most notably: There is no longer a weak team in the East Division.
Michigan State, which was picked to finish last in the East under second-year coach Mel Tucker, has rattled off impressive road wins at Northwestern and Miami of Florida. Now the 3-0 Spartans are ranked 21st in the country heading into Saturday’s home game against Nebraska.
Penn State has rebounded nicely after a 0-5 start in 2020. Like Iowa, the Nittany Lions have won nine straight games. Saturday's 28-20 home win vs. Auburn was an important head-to-head result for the Big Ten, which took a hit with Ohio State's Week 2 home loss to Oregon but gained stature with Iowa's win at then-No. 10 Iowa State.
Maryland is off to a surprising 3-0 start after wins against West Virginia and Illinois. So is Rutgers, of all programs. Michigan, which suddenly has a top-10 national offense and top-10 defense, is also 3-0.
It begs the question: Who will be the seventh-place team in the rugged East? It could end up being Indiana, which began the season ranked 17th but is 1-2 after troubling losses to Iowa and Cincinnati.
Suddenly, Rutgers-Michigan this weekend has some juice.
Wisconsin’s crossover schedule (already lost to Penn State; Michigan and Rutgers remain) seems tougher than anyone anticipated.
Iowa’s trip to Maryland next week once looked like one of the breathers on the schedule, but now it’s got danger written all over it.
In the West, Minnesota’s 30-0 win at Colorado was impressive. Nebraska hanging within a touchdown of No. 3 Oklahoma is noteworthy. A big matchup between Wisconsin and No. 10 Notre Dame looms Saturday at Soldier Field.
Bottom line: This helps the Big Ten as a whole when it comes to deserving a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the bolstered bottom of the league makes the grind that much harder. Any team that wins its division will have earned that spot in the Dec. 4 Big Ten title game.
“If you stack those (good) days and compound that over time,” Petras said, “at the end of the season you can probably look at your rankings and be pretty happy.”
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.