Hawkeye receiver Brandon Smith is trusted TD target for new quarterback Spencer Petras

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Brandon Smith won’t be on the receiving end of all of Spencer Petras’s college touchdown passes.

But there’s no mystery why the Iowa senior wide receiver has pulled down the first two scoring tosses of Petras’s debut season at starting quarterback. The Hawkeyes were near the end zone on each occasion, and their opponent thought they had a cornerback who could stand up to the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Smith.

Smith cleared 6-foot-8 in the high jump as a high school senior down in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. His hands are so large that he wears size 3XL gloves, although those weren’t needed as often back home as they are in Iowa.

Petras may be just a sophomore, but he recognizes when a cornerback is about to be in over his head.

Against Northwestern in a Week 2 loss, Petras lobbed a pass from the 7-yard line to the right side of the end zone, knowing that Smith would leap to get it. In Saturday’s win over Michigan State, it was the second verse of the same song, although this time it was from 14 yards out and into Kinnick Stadium’s south end zone instead of the north. Smith adjusted to shed 5-11 Spartans cornerback Kalon Gervin and grab that football.

“We both realized what type of play it was, how it was just me and the defensive back. When we’re in that situation, we kind of click and we know that it might be a big play,” Smith said Tuesday.

Smith has nine touchdown catches in 37 games as a Hawkeye, three of them in his past four outings. He doesn’t believe there’s a defensive player in the Big Ten Conference who can cover him without help.

Iowa senior wide receiver Brandon Smith maneuvers inside Michigan State cornerback Kalon Gervin to secure a 14-yard touchdown catch at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. Smith believes he'll come down with the football anytime he's facing single coverage. Hawkeye quarterback Spencer Petras is a believer, too. His first two scoring passes have gone to Smith in similar situations.

“It’s my fourth year out here, and I’m honestly confident enough to say that I feel like I’m a dangerous receiver,” Smith said. “And in one-on-one matchups, more times than not, I’m going to come down with the ball.”

The Petras-to-Smith connection figures to accelerate when Iowa visits Minnesota at 6 p.m. Friday (FS1). Both teams are 1-2, but coming off blowout victories. The Gophers are surrendering 481 yards per game. It was at TCF Bank Stadium two seasons ago that Smith had the best game of his sophomore season, with five catches for 68 yards.

The Hawkeyes will get senior wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette back for Friday’s game as well. Smith-Marsette sat out of the 49-7 defeat of Michigan State after an arrest for driving while intoxicated. He has caught a touchdown pass in each of the past two Iowa victories over Minnesota.

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“We all make mistakes. He was the first one to own up to it, that he made a mistake, and he showed up to practice every day working hard,” Petras said of Smith-Marsette. “I’m happy that he’s back playing with us.”

That means Petras will have his full stable of receivers against a Gophers team that features one outstanding wideout in Rashod Bateman, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. Minnesota is averaging 36.3 points per game; Bateman has 24 catches.

Iowa counters with a more diverse passing attack in which six players have seven or more catches. That contingent is led by tight end Sam LaPorta with 13. Smith-Marsette got all seven of his in the loss to Northwestern.

Smith has been the dependable option at the goal line, where he is an elite threat. Petras is quickly recognizing this.

“You’ve seen it through Brandon’s career here. He’s an outstanding player, really good when the ball is in the air,” Petras said. “He proves himself week in and week out, in practice and on the game field.”

Petras has attempted 116 passes in his first three starts, second-most in the Big Ten this season behind Penn State’s Sean Clifford. This is not by design, he said. After a three-interception game against Northwestern, Petras said he’s focused on not taking unnecessary chances downfield. He wants to make the throws the defense is allowing him.

That’s where Smith can be so valuable. He’s the surest option in Iowa’s receiver group, combining the size to shield defenders from the football and the large hands to snare it when there is traffic. He has nine catches for 88 yards on the season. He has 77 catches and nine touchdowns during a Hawkeye career that has included five full games lost to injury, plus a mere token appearance in last year’s home win over Minnesota.

“I haven’t missed a step,” Smith said after a junior season in which he returned from a right leg injury in time to catch four passes, one for a touchdown, in the Holiday Bowl win over USC. “I feel like I came back faster, stronger and still able to make the plays I was making last year.”

Smith was just emerging as a star when the injury happened, against Purdue. He had seven catches for 86 yards and a touchdown the week before against Penn State. He had already set career highs with nine receptions good for 106 yards in the home win over the Boilermakers when the injury left him hobbling to the sideline.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz recalled Tuesday that Smith was a “raw prospect” in high school. That’s probably why the Mississippi colleges didn’t give him a long look, Ferentz theorized.

The Hawkeyes saw potential in Smith and lured him north. One of his most satisfying moments was a 2019 Outback Bowl victory over Mississippi State, where his father (Roy) and sister (Brianna) starred in track and field. He had three catches for 33 yards in that game.

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“We thought he had a chance to really grow into an outstanding Big Ten player, and that’s what he’s done,” Ferentz said. “With each phase of his career, each month of his career, he’s shown improvement.

“We’re excited for the fact that he’s with us here for the next six games. We’re going to enjoy him while he’s here and look forward to him continuing to play really good football for us and hopefully leading us to some good things.”

Smith is eager to be a bigger part of Iowa’s offense. He believes Petras got into a better rhythm in his third start than the previous two. They’ll continue to hunt one-on-one matchups on the outside for Smith. But he can beat double-coverage as well, as long as the pass is put into a spot where he can climb and get it.

“We always work on attacking the ball anytime the ball is in the air,” Smith said.

“We work on those type of things every day.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.