Spencer Petras’ transition from backup quarterback to Iowa’s starter was likely going to be a bumpy journey, given the circumstances of this tumultuous year.
Now, with the Hawkeyes at 0-2 and Petras having his struggles, coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz are going to have to find a way to ease the pressure on their quarterback.
Petras threw 50 passes in Saturday’s 21-20 loss to Northwestern. That’s a lot of attempts if a quarterback is trying to rally his team from a big deficit, not a one-point margin.
The goal right now is to get him comfortable if he’s going to be successful.
Asked if Petras was pressing, Kirk Ferentz said, “That’s something I worry about with a lot of players. Anybody that plays quarterback that’s certainly something, and then I worry about some of our veteran guys. The best thing anybody can do offensively or defensively, special teams, is just do what they’re supposed to do, and then if they do that with a little bit of extra that’s always good, too. Yeah, certainly I think we can be careful.”
Petras’ teammates didn’t seem concerned.
“He’s been the starter for two games now,” wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “It’s going to come. He’s going to get way more comfortable. He’s going to have top-of-the-line games, he’s going to have games like this one where balls just don’t go his way.
“It’s tough right now. Just going out there, he’s going to get way more comfortable. The game’s going to come to him.”
In a normal year, Petras would have had spring practice, summer workouts, and then fall camp to prepare. But the COVID-19 pandemic took away his spring practice time, put limits on his summer workouts, then turned preseason training camp into a condensed sprint to a season that originally was going to be delayed.
It was never going to be an ideal situation.
As Smith-Marsette said, Petras should get comfortable with more experience. But the 0-2 start for the Hawkeyes has magnified his struggles.
Petras threw three interceptions on Saturday, with two bouncing off the outstretched hands of tight end Sam LaPorta, off-target throws with perhaps too much velocity.
There were times when Petras was uncomfortable in the pocket, running out of his protection when there wasn’t a lot of defensive heat.
Petras completed 26 passes for a .520 completion percentage against Northwestern — he had a .564 completion percentage in the season-opening 24-20 loss at Purdue.
“The big theme after last week was making sure I go through my progression, not force anything,” Petras said.
Forcing passes, improving his touch on passes — those are things that come with experience and time.
But the Hawkeyes don’t have much time in a nine-game season of all Big Ten opponents.
If anything, the Hawkeyes are going to have to start running the ball more.
Iowa ran 74 plays on Saturday. Only 23 were rushing attempts, and the Hawkeyes had just 11 second-half carries. The Hawkeyes averaged 3.3 yards per carry — not great, but certainly not something that would cause the running game to be abandoned.
“I’ll go on record saying that, we don’t want to play that way,” Ferentz said of the imbalance. “Looking for a lot more balance than that.”
Northwestern’s defense clogged Iowa’s passing lanes, a blueprint for what is coming next.
“Basically they’re forcing you to earn it, all the way down the field,” Petras said. “We were successful here and there, but not enough to get the win.”
Ferentz understands the challenges his new quarterback faces.
“The bottom line is Spencer is a two-game quarterback right now, so he’s a very young guy,” Ferentz said. “This was not a fun experience certainly, wasn’t a great experience for him in that second half, but he’ll grow from this because he’s so conscientious and he works well. He’ll be better for it, but boy, it’s hard in the process, we all know that. It’s just part of the game sometimes, so he’ll get back up on his feet, we’ll go back to work tomorrow and I’m confident he’ll be a better player moving forward, but yeah, that’s certainly something we always worry about.”