Leistikow: Iowa's latest win shows that, sometimes, two quarterbacks are better than one

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — Kirk Ferentz has said a few times over the last month that he feels like Iowa has two good starting quarterbacks in Alex Padilla and Spencer Petras.

On Tuesday, he found himself with none.

Neither of Iowa’s top two quarterbacks practiced that day as they dealt with the flu bug that was sweeping through the team.

“It was pretty bad,” the Iowa head coach said following his team’s come-from-behind, 28-21 win at Nebraska on Friday at Memorial Stadium. “For those of us that didn’t get it, I’m sure we all got it now. Because it was a pretty good locker room (celebration) in there.”

Thanks to a little more time and Iowa’s medical staff, Padilla and Petras could play Friday. Neither was 100%, but they could go.

Spencer Petras delivers a throw in the second half of Iowa's 28-21 win at Nebraska. The Hawkeyes scored 22 second-half points.

Padilla got the start and was clearly not himself during Iowa’s first half.

And that’s where the luxury of having two trusted quarterbacks came into play.

For the second time this season, Ferentz opted to make an in-game change. With Iowa facing a 14-6 halftime deficit, he went to the bullpen.

“Probably more gut than thought,” Ferentz said. “It felt like maybe that’d give us a little boost.”

As was the case at Northwestern on Nov. 6 — when Ferentz pulled Petras in favor of Padilla as the offense stalled — the decision paid off.

In a word? Petras was “ready.” That was according to wide receiver Keagan Johnson.

“Maybe he felt like he had something to prove,” Johnson said. “But it was more like the offense needed that spark. We needed to make something happen. I think he felt that. And I think we all felt that.”

More:Iowa football mailbag: How serious was the Hawkeyes' rumored flu outbreak?

When Petras was summoned, encouragement came from his close friend and roommate, Tyler Linderbaum.

“When I knew he was going in, I said, ‘You’re a winner. Go out there and win.’ And he led us there,” Iowa's all-America center said. “He was commanding in the huddle. I thought he did a great job.”

Petras didn’t do anything over-the-top memorable to rally the Hawkeyes to the game’s final 22 points. His longest completion was 27 yards, to tight end Luke Lachey on a well-designed rollout pass. Petras finished 7-for-13 for 105 yards.

But he was a steadying force out there behind an Iowa offensive line that has finally shown some run-game chops and improved pass protection. He wasn't sacked, even using his legs a little bit to buy time.

Here is a rundown of the five second-half possessions Petras led, not counting the final kneel-down sequence. Three scores, one punt, one red-zone fumble:

  • Nine plays, 69 yards with a key 13-yard check-down pass to Charlie Jones on third-and-9. The possession ended in a Tyler Goodson fumble at Nebraska’s 6-yard line.
  • Ten plays, 57 yards with a 24-yard strike to Nico Ragaini on third-and-14 to set up the third of Caleb Shudak’s four field goals.
  • A three-and-out after Logan Lee’s fumble recovery gave Iowa good position near midfield. (Of note: Tory Taylor’s booming 49-yard punt was fair caught at the Huskers’ 7-yard line, which directly led to a safety two plays later.)
  • Eight plays, 36 yards to produce another Shudak field goal to tie the score at 21-21. An 8-yard slingshot to Jones on third-and-8 along the sideline was Petras’ best throw of the day.
  • Six plays, 76 yards and a touchdown … all on the ground, fueled by a 55-yard run by Tyler Goodson. Petras, fittingly, capped the drive with a quarterback-sneak touchdown from 2 yards out on second-and-goal.

The sneak, with Linderbaum leading the way, has produced countless Hawkeye touchdowns in recent years. That was Petras’ fifth rushing TD of the season despite having minus-99 rushing yards.

“It’s funny, T-Good takes us down there, then Gavin (Williams) with some physical runs. Then I get the score,” Petras said, sporting a “West Division Champions” T-shirt to commemorate Iowa’s tying for the division title with the win. “It feels like I’m cheating those guys. But no, it was good. It was good to get in the end zone.”

And for Petras, it was good to be back.

The redshirt junior experienced the highest of highs earlier this season, when his beautiful 43-yard touchdown pass to Ragaini in the fourth quarter sent Iowa to a rousing win against Penn State and No. 2 in the national rankings.

Then he experienced the lowest of (football) lows, as he was often the subject of a frustrated fan base after back-to-back losses to Purdue and Wisconsin in which Iowa scored only 14 points. He injured his shoulder in the fourth quarter of the Wisconsin game, amplifying the calls for Padilla to become Iowa’s No. 1 quarterback.

On Friday, Petras revealed that he couldn’t throw the ball more than 5 yards on the Monday after that Wisconsin game. With medication, he got the start that week at Northwestern … but clearly didn’t have it that day.

This week, when Padilla didn’t have his best stuff … Petras gave Iowa the relief appearance it needed.

“(We) just needed to go a different direction, similar to what happened against Northwestern (when) my shoulder was jacked up and just couldn’t do it," Petras said. "That’s just the way it is. Next guy in."

Being the backup was tough on Petras. He’s a competitor who has worked his entire football life to be a Power Five starting quarterback. And he’s been very successful, with a 13-4 record as a starter to his name.

Petras was supportive as his good friend, Padilla, led Iowa to three straight wins. His shoulder started feeling close to 100% the week of the Illinois game, but he watched Iowa’s 33-23 win from the sideline. Petras would help Padilla play calls and advice as the games unfolded.

Ferentz praised how Petras never let his disappointment in being the backup show.

“Not playing is a challenge,” Petras conceded. “Everyone on this team will face adversity and has. This team has faced adversity. Same thing.”

What should happen next?

Iowa coaches will have a better idea to the extent of Petras’ shoulder and how much Padilla’s so-so performance Friday can be chalked up to the flu bug. Their quarterback decision won't be easy. Padilla has done some really nice things; Petras has, too.

If Iowa plays in the Big Ten Championship Game next week, Ferentz joked that he’d let us know the starter on Tuesday.

If Iowa doesn’t play until a bowl game, there’s time to figure this out.

And just because one guy starts the next game, that doesn’t mean the other couldn’t come in.

We’ve seen all season that few teams (paging Penn State?) have such a backup-quarterback luxury. Petras and Padilla have combined to make winning plays to help deliver this 10-2 regular season.

The Hawkeyes have two quarterbacks they feel good about. No matter who starts the next game, Iowa can use that to its advantage. Just like it did Friday.

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.