Leistikow's 6 Big Ten title game thoughts: On Iowa's quarterback decision, bowl clarity and motivation

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Spencer Petras didn’t realize he would be starting Saturday’s Big Ten Conference championship game until Monday morning. After Iowa players arrived at football practice, quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe told the junior: You’re running with the first team.

There was no formal meeting or conversation about it, Petras relayed Tuesday.

It was just business as usual, and now Petras got the keys to the offense as Iowa approaches arguably its biggest game in six years. For the record, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday did say that Petras would get the start in Saturday’s 7:17 p.m. CT game against Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

“Just based on the time of year, there’s no time to have a competition right now,” Petras said.

Spencer Petras answered questions as the Hawkeyes' first-team quarterback for the first time in a month Tuesday.

Ferentz has made in-game quarterback changes twice during Iowa’s four-game winning streak. Like it was a gut feel for him to pull Alex Padilla at halftime of Iowa’s 28-21 at Nebraska, Ferentz feels strongly that Petras gives the Hawkeyes (10-2) their best chance to win against the daunting Wolverines (11-1).

“He's done a lot of good things for over two years,” Ferentz said. “And we haven't forgotten about that at all.”

This is the right decision. In Iowa’s two top-10 showdowns this year, Petras was the quarterback — and came out on top.

While he wasn't spectacular in either victory against Iowa State and Penn State, he made winning plays in key moments. The 26-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Jones at Iowa State was a thing of beauty. And his 44-yard toss to Nico Ragaini for the winning points vs. Penn State will be remembered for years to come.

Petras’ biggest problems this year have occurred when he’s been under pressure. He’s taken a lot of costly sacks, particularly in the loss at Wisconsin. When he’s well-protected, Petras has shown an ability to push the ball downfield with success. Ferentz believes his offensive line is playing the best it has all season.

If the line can’t hold up against Michigan or if Petras is struggling on the big stage, then Ferentz can’t wait too long to make the switch to Padilla. But for now, the head coach doesn’t want his starter worried about getting pulled.

“We don't want a guy looking over the shoulder, start that kind of situation,” Ferentz said. “It's not good for anybody.”

The QB position on Tuesday got even more interesting with redshirt freshman Deuce Hogan entering his name into the NCAA transfer portal. Having Petras as No. 1 gives Ferentz a sense of stability in a high-pressure game.

“We’ve been in games where there’s been a lot of media attention, a lot of talk, a lot of buzz,” Petras said. “I think we’ve done a good job all year when those games have presented themselves of focusing on what’s important, and we’ve come out successful in those two big games. I have no doubt we’ll handle the week well, handle the environment well.”

Is there a path for Iowa to make the College Football Playoff?

With the Hawkeyes checking in at No. 13 in Tuesday's next-to-last playoff rankings — and only the top four get in — there's really no realistic chance. The fact that 8-4 Minnesota (Iowa's best win), 8-4 Wisconsin and 8-4 Purdue (Iowa's losses) were not included in Tuesday's top 25 leave the Hawkeyes with no playoff case, even with a decisive win against No. 2 Michigan.

If No. 10 Oregon loses to Utah on Friday, No. 3 Alabama is blown out by Georgia on Saturday and No. 4 Cincinnati is beaten by Houston … and Iowa beats Michigan … maybe the Hawkeyes could climb to the No. 5 or 6 range, but that's probably where it tops out.

Therefore, the Hawkeyes' bowl fate looks pretty clear.

With a win, they'll clinch a spot in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl as the Big Ten champion. That would give the Hawkeyes a matchup against the Utah-Oregon winner and a shot to win the program's first Rose Bowl since the 1958 season. 

With a loss, they'll still be slotted as the fourth-rated Big Ten team. Michigan would head to the playoff, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 11 Michigan State would be locks for the New Year's Six, and Iowa would probably head to the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. 

Some good news and bad news for Iowa’s secondary.

We knew that second-team all-Big Ten cornerback Matt Hankins wouldn’t be back for Saturday’s title game, but Ferentz revealed Tuesday that Hankins would also be out for Iowa’s bowl game with an undisclosed injury. Still, Hankins remains a valued team leader and will be one of the four captains on the field for Saturday’s coin toss — along with Tyler Linderbaum, Jack Campbell and Jack Koerner.

“He’s got a great attitude,” Ferentz said of Hankins. “He’s so excited, even though he won't be playing this week. He's so excited to be part of this. He’ll have a real positive effect on a lot of other guys."

The good news is that cornerback Terry Roberts is on track to return. The junior who is a special-teams star got his first career start against Purdue in Week 7, but hasn’t played since due to a slow-to-heal bone bruise. Sophomore Jermari Harris has started three of Iowa’s final four games and caught the game-clinching interception at Nebraska on Friday. Coaches might have a decision to make on Roberts vs. Harris on Saturday, opposite Big Ten defensive back of the year Riley Moss.

There’s plenty of Iowa motivation for Michigan.

Koerner and Hankins are among the fifth-year seniors on Iowa’s roster that have beaten every Big Ten opponent except one during their time here.

“I am aware of which team,” Koerner said Tuesday. “I knew that last year as well, and that game got canceled. I’m glad we have another opportunity.”

The Hawkeyes last beat in Michigan in 2016, but they’ve only played them once since — a 10-3 loss in Ann Arbor in 2019. They were supposed to clash in the pandemic-created Champions Week for the Big Ten last December, but Michigan cited COVID-19 issues for backing out of the game.

Yep, Iowa’s notched a win over Ohio State (in 2017) in that time. Beat Michigan State (once), Penn State (twice), Wisconsin (once). Topping Michigan on Saturday would complete quite the five-year run.

Koerner is happy to be on the field. The third-year starting free safety missed Iowa’s game against Illinois with a sprained ankle and was a game-time decision at Nebraska. He played the full game and had seven tackles.

“I’m doing everything I can to make sure I’m 100%, ready to go this Saturday,” he said.

Tyler Goodson shares his recruitment story about Jim Harbaugh.

Back in December of 2018, Michigan’s head coach flew to Georgia and wanted to meet with Goodson, an Iowa commitment at the time. Harbaugh was there for an in-home visit with current Wolverines cornerback DJ Turner, who is from Goodson’s hometown Suwanee. Turner told Goodson that Harbaugh wanted him to stop by, as Michigan was scrambling after a running-back recruit de-committed.

“I was on the fence about it, but I went over there anyway. He was a cool guy. Loved him,” Goodson said. “But I knew where I wanted to go.”

You know the rest of the story. Goodson declined Michigan's scholarship offer and stuck with Iowa. On Sunday, the story came full circle as Harbaugh praised Goodson as one of Iowa’s top players. The junior has rushed for 1,101 yards this season, with a career-high 156 coming Friday against Nebraska, and 2,501 for his career.

No regrets.

“At the end of the day, (Harbaugh) looked at someone else other than me first. Coach Ferentz and his staff took the time to come after me first. I was the No. 1 guy on their board,” Goodson said. “I wanted to go where someone wanted me more, rather than being someone’s secondary guy.”

Sixth-year senior Caleb Shudak is in his first season as Iowa's starting kicker.

The smallest player on Iowa's roster could be a big factor on Saturday.

Caleb Shudak, the 5-foot-8 senior placekicker, deserved and got first-team all-Big Ten honors from the media after converting 22 of 25 field-goal attempts in the regular season. He is 7-for-7 from 40-49 yards and has four makes from 50-plus. Shudak’s preparation is impeccable. He credited sports psychologist Carmen Tebbe-Priebe for her work with Iowa’s kickers on the mental side of the game. That’s something heavily supported by outstanding special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods.

“I have it down to the point where I know exactly when I’m going to breathe on my walk-off (before the kick), when I’m going to nod my head,” Shudak said. “It’s down to the smallest details so I don’t have to think about anything. It’s all just reflex and reaction.”

Saturday will be Shudak's first time kicking indoors for a game. That means fewer pregame reps, with no wind factor to figure out. His warmup routine will mainly be to test his range. He expected that to be "58 to 60" yards, as it is in Iowa’s indoor facility.

"A really good day, maybe 61 or 62," Shudak added.

Keep that in mind in a late-half or late-game moment Saturday night.

The Hawkeyes have a strong-legged, calm-in-the-moment kicker on their side.

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.