Leistikow: Kirk Ferentz's QB decision should be obvious, but it still isn't easy
EVANSTON, Ill. — Over 23 years, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has relentlessly stuck by his starting quarterbacks. He has always liked the idea of having that one guy that he can count on from week to week, through thick and thin. That’s undeniably one of many contributing factors to Ferentz’s longevity and consistency at the Hawkeyes’ helm.
The instances when he was willing to rotate or juggle quarterbacks are few and far between. The most prominent examples are Kyle McCann and Brad Banks in 2001; Jake Christensen and Ricky Stanzi in 2008; and Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard in 2014.
In all three instances, the guy that started No. 2 eventually became No. 1. And there’s no question that once they got their chances, Banks, Stanzi and Beathard elevated the Hawkeye program to euphoric heights.
That’s not to say that Alex Padilla is the next great Iowa quarterback after one successful relief appearance against a 3-6 Northwestern team. But the redshirt sophomore provided enough juice in Iowa’s 17-12 victory Saturday night at Ryan Field that everyone needs to see more — Ferentz included.
Padilla’s throws were decisive and accurate, especially when he was turned loose. In a span of 1¾ quarters — from replacing Spencer Petras at 2:16 of the first to midway through the third — Padilla crisply completed 15-of-23 passes for 161 yards and turned a 0-0 game into a 17-3 Iowa lead. He consistently got the ball to playmakers. For a Hawkeye offense that was desperate for any positive momentum, it was a jolt to the season that was sorely needed.
Padilla would go only 3-for-5 for 11 yards in the final 22 minutes (though Charlie Jones dropped a gorgeous fourth-quarter throw that would’ve converted a second-and-13), as Iowa mostly chose — almost to its detriment — to lean on its defense.
The late-game play-calling was questionable, at best. But that’s beside the point, which is this: Even though Ferentz was non-committal about his quarterback situation going forward, he knows what needs to be done.
Padilla needs to start next Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. home game against Minnesota.
Early in Ferentz’s 15-minute postgame news conference, he said “hopefully” Petras would be fully healthy by Monday or Tuesday with a shoulder issue that limited his practice time last week. Ferentz also explained that Petras got Saturday’s nod (his 17th straight start) because his shoulder had improved considerably by Friday. But after three possessions netted 26 yards and one first down against a subpar Northwestern defense, there was a consensus that it was time to turn to Padilla.
Padilla, to his credit, has been a diligent backup for nearly two full seasons. Iowa’s offensive coaches also deserve credit for having a backup quarterback ready to pinch-hit in a key moment; we saw in Iowa’s game against Penn State on Oct. 9, the opponent wasn’t ready for that moment — and the Hawkeyes capitalized.
“You’ve got to prepare every week like you’re the starter. I’ve been doing that over the course of this season,” said Padilla, who was 5-for-16 for 73 yards in his young career before Saturday. “You just have to be ready and waiting for your opportunity. And don’t waste that opportunity when it comes around."
When I asked Ferentz whether Petras would be his starter against Minnesota if 100% healthy, he gave a well-thought out and respectful answer.
“We’ll look at the film, see what we think. I know this, Spencer has led us to a lot of victories. And tonight, Alex did,” Ferentz said. “To me, that’s a good situation. I’m really proud of Alex for what he did. I’m really proud of the things Spencer has done over the last two years as well. We’ll just take it a day at a time, but hopefully it’s — pardon the pun — a healthy situation for us."
Hawkeye fans in the pro-Padilla camp who are angry at that answer missed the point. Ferentz wasn’t dismissing Padilla. Instead, he was showing reverence to Petras, just as Padilla did afterward.
“He really rallied around me. He was giving me a whole bunch of tips,” Padilla said. "Great player, great teammate. I’m with him more than anyone else. Big thanks to him."
Petras has been a leader in the locker room, voted captain every week until this one (now we know why, considering his health status). He won 12 straight games as a starting quarterback, something only Stanzi and Beathard has done at Iowa in the modern era.
This was not the time to turn the page to Padilla publicly. But Ferentz has to know that the right and best decision is to do exactly with Padilla vs. Minnesota what he did with Petras vs. Northwestern.
Start Padilla; and have Petras (if healthy) on stand-by.
Additionally, Ferentz needs to give Padilla the majority of No. 1 reps all week in practice. Petras is a tremendous student of the game and could run the offense and game plan against Minnesota in a heartbeat, if need be. But just like with Petras on Saturday, Ferentz owes it to Padilla and the team to see what he can do as the guy against the Gophers. He needs to see if the spark that the Hawkeyes got Saturday can turn into more.
It was no accident that true freshmen Keagan Johnson (five catches, 68 yards) and Arland Bruce IV (three catches, 30 yards and a 10-yard touchdown run) were Padilla’s two favorite and most productive targets Saturday. The three of them had worked together with the No. 2 unit since spring ball.
“I think that’s one of the main things that played into our success with the passing game today,” said Johnson, who despite not being activated fully until Week 4 this season trails only Sam LaPorta in receiving yardage. “Me and Arland, when we first got here, we were taking second-team reps with Alex. We feel comfortable with Spencer, too, but we knew that if Alex had to step in, we already had that connection down.”
In other words, Padilla is already lifting up Iowa’s future stars. There is little downside to giving him his first career start, particularly because he’s the more mobile of the two quarterbacks operating behind an offensive line that allowed another seven tackles for loss Saturday (bringing the season total to a staggering 73).
If for some reason Padilla doesn’t have it against Minnesota after the first three or four series? Well, it’s nice to have someone with experience like Petras as an option off the bench.
“I admire Spencer for giving it a try. He gave it his best try,” said Ferentz, standing by his quarterback as he always has. “We’ll see where that is next week. Meantime, it’s great to see Alex get some experience and be successful.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.