Three-year starting quarterback and Big Ten West Champion are just two of the accomplishments listed in his bio on the team website. It also includes 37 games played and 31 games started. However, what isn’t listed might be Spencer Petras’ most important accolade. Leadership through adversity. Few Hawkeyes have ever traversed their collegiate path with the integrity and class the way Petras did through improbable turmoil. Spencer Petras’ legacy is worth a closer look.
As a member of the 2018 recruiting class, the San Rafael, California native was a four-star recruit out of Marin Catholic High School. Petras set numerous school records at quarterback, breaking Jared Goff’s previously set marks. In his senior season in high school, Petras threw 50 touchdowns and 4,157 yards. Both still stand as school records.
After originally committing to play football at Oregon State, Petras flipped his commitment in December 2017 to the Hawkeyes. Since arriving on campus in 2018, Petras has embodied relentless perseverance and leadership in a Hawkeye uniform. His first two years in Iowa City were spent deep on the depth chart behind Nate Stanley and Peyton Mansell. He played in just five games during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
His time came, but not before facing significant adversity. The 2020 offseason was swept up by the difficulties of a global pandemic. Spring practice was canceled and the typical routine of fall camp was altered to adjust for a shortened season.
In addition to the struggles of COVID, the football program was facing allegations from former players citing their marginalizing experiences within the Iowa Football program. The players at Iowa needed to come together in a way they never had before in order to instill change and move forward in a positive direction. These obstacles made Petras’ first season of preparation as the new starter truly unique to navigate.
Petras took his first snap as the starter for the Hawkeyes on October 24th, 2020 in West Lafayette. He completed 22 of 39 for 265 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. It ended in a four-point loss, but Petras’ performance was promising given the circumstances leading up to the start. Northwestern visited Iowa City the next week for his first start inside Kinnick Stadium. Petras led Iowa to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, but couldn’t maintain their lead. After throwing three interceptions on 50 attempts, Northwestern came back to win by one point.
Then the calendar flipped to November. Iowa began their surge with a 49-7 victory over Michigan State that led to six straight victories to finish out the season. Petras threw eight touchdowns in that span for 1,088 yards. In their six wins, the team averaged 36 points per game and a 22-point margin of victory.
Petras’ defining performance was against Illinois in the second to last week of the year. Iowa was down 14 points early, and the offense wasn’t finding a rhythm. It would have been easy at that moment to pack things in with the season coming to a close. Instead, Petras proceeded to throw three touchdowns and lead a comeback of 35 unanswered points to win in Champaign. It’s quite reasonable to say that it was this game that set the tone for what was to come in the 2021 season.
The Hawkeyes were considered by many to be the hottest team in the nation at the end of 2020. Their dominant six straight victories to end the season propelled the Hawkeyes to the 15th spot in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Expectations and excitement for the 2021 season were at an all-time high. Players and fans alike were anxious to get back inside Kinnick Stadium after a one-year hiatus from spectators.
Iowa began 2021 ranked in the top 20 and picked up right where the 2020 season ended. It began with a 34-6 victory over #17 Indiana. It was also Petras’ first game at home in front of a sold-out Kinnick Stadium. The week one victory was the beginning of another six-game win streak. That sixth game was primed to be one of the premier matchups of the college football season. Fourth-ranked Penn State visited the third-ranked Hawkeyes in the first top-five game inside Kinnick Stadium since 1985.
Penn State took a 20-13 lead into the fourth quarter. Following an Iowa field goal, Petras and the offense took over with six minutes left in regulation down by four points. On the first play of the drive, Petras found Nico Ragaini for a 44-yard score to put the Hawkeyes up by three points. It turned out to be the game-winning score. The Hawkeyes came away with arguably the biggest victory inside Kinnick Stadium in decades. The next morning the AP Poll was released. The Iowa Hawkeyes were the second-ranked college football team in the country. It was their highest ranking in the AP Poll since 1985 when they were ranked number one for five straight weeks.
Big Ten Title
The Hawkeyes fell in their next two games, dropping the team to 6-2 overall. Petras threw four interceptions against Purdue, and the loss to Wisconsin featured just 156 total yards. He was responsible for five of the team’s seven total turnovers in those two games, and Iowa no longer controlled its own destiny.
The calendar switched to November, and following Petras’ shoulder injury, Alex Padilla led Iowa to victories against Northwestern, Minnesota, and Illinois. But Petras wasn’t done for the season. At Nebraska, Padilla struggled in the first half, and Petras’ name was called with the Hawkeyes down 14-6. After driving the team nine plays into the red zone, Iowa fumbled and Nebraska scored again, making the deficit 15 points. Petras responded by driving the team down the field again, getting three points. Iowa added seven more with the blocked punt touchdown, then tied the game at 21 with another field goal. Petras led the offense down the field one final time with three minutes to play. He took it himself for a rushing score to ultimately win the football game. The victory was the tenth of the season and clinched at least a share of the Big Ten West. The next day, Minnesota upset Wisconsin giving Iowa the outright Big Ten West title. Petras and the Iowa Hawkeyes were headed to Indianapolis.
Expectations were mixed heading into the 2022 season in Iowa City. Iowa was in a position to repeat in the Big Ten West, but many key pieces had moved on to the next level. The incoming offensive line was inexperienced, there were question marks in the backfield, and the quarterback room had a new coach in Brian Ferentz. On top of all of that, the wide receiver room was down to just one scholarship player on the depth chart for the first three games.
A 7-3 win in the team’s first game included no touchdowns and only 166 yards of offense. Game two against Iowa State featured even fewer offensive yards and another seven-point performance. This time it was a loss. In the two games, Petras had zero touchdowns and two interceptions. The offense as a whole averaged less than three yards per play in each game.
Following victories over Nevada and Rutgers in the next two games, Iowa dropped their next three to Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State. Petras was benched in Columbus. The lack of production on offense started to become the center of attention for the fans and media both locally and nationally. The Hawkeyes fell to 3-4 overall. It was their worst start since the 2007 season.
The starting quarterback is one of the handfuls of position players made available to the media following games. As far as the coaching staff, only the head coach takes questions. Not the offensive coordinator or any other staff member. That made Petras the main recipient of the season-long interrogation of the Hawkeye offense. Petras fielded difficult questions pointing at problems with the scheme, development, and personnel.
“You’re halfway through the season, why has this offense not progressed?”
“So you think there is nothing wrong with the scheme at all?”
“What is the biggest problem with the offense’s inability to move the football?”
“We don’t usually get to talk to offensive coordinators, you’re our best access to that. The play calling in the red zone, what was the thought process there?”
Not once did Petras place blame on anyone other than himself. He repeatedly responded “it starts with me”, or “I can’t let that happen” in the face of adversity. Some of the questions could have been better directed elsewhere. But as the starting quarterback, Petras was poised in his attitude at the podium. He never used play calling as a scapegoat. Rather, he put it on himself and his lack of execution on game day. Week after week, the questions poured in regarding the offense. Instead of letting it get to him, Petras responded on the field.
Heading into Northwestern weekend on October 29th, the Iowa depth chart featured the word “or” between Petras’ and Padilla’s names. The controversy was loud in the fanbase and media, with many not wanting to see Petras on the field that weekend. The November Hawkeyes came early that weekend because Iowa turned it around. Petras led a 33-13 victory with nearly 400 yards of offense against Northwestern. The next weekend, Iowa dominated Purdue on the road, averaging nearly seven yards per play. Iowa then won the next two trophy games against Wisconsin and Minnesota improving to 7-4 on the season.
Against all odds, and with some help from other Big Ten West teams, the Iowa Hawkeyes were in control of the West with one game remaining. A win at home on senior day would clinch the division and earn the Hawkeyes a second-straight appearance in Indianapolis.
Final Send Off
On senior day, Petras received the loudest and most prolonged standing ovation as he took the field inside Kinnick Stadium. He was about to start his 31st career game as quarterback of the Iowa Hawkeyes. He had just led the team through some of the most unrest of the Ferentz era at Iowa where seemingly everyone was calling for change at every level. Through it all, Petras was taking the field with a chance at another divisional title.
Unfortunately, the game went sideways quickly. Petras went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter. The Hawkeyes lost and finished the season 7-5 with no division title. In his career at Iowa, Petras only lost one game in the month of November as a starter. That day in a game, he was injured in the first quarter and did not return.
Duke Slater Golden Gavel
At the end of each season, the Iowa media vote on the annual recipient of the Duke Slater Golden Gavel Award. The Gavel is awarded to the Hawkeye football player who exhibits themself professional integrity and cooperation in all interactions with the media throughout the season. The award was presented to Petras, and there couldn’t have been a player more deserving of the honor. Petras set an example of accountability and professionalism in the face of adversity that few will ever even have the chance to emulate.
Petras’ injury against Nebraska was a torn rotator cuff and labrum. He had surgery in December, and the recovery time ranges from six to eleven months or more. Petras will return to the Iowa roster for his final year of eligibility for the 2023 season. With Cade McNamara set to be the new Hawkeye quarterback, Petras will return to rehab his injury while supporting McNamara as the new starting quarterback. He will serve as a player-coach of sorts. In the face of yet another setback, Petras will finish out his career in Iowa City with the goal of supporting his new starting quarterback and the rest of his teammates.
In 31 starts as the quarterback, Petras led the Hawkeyes to 20-11 overall. As it stands, Petras has 5,179 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. Statistically, Petras might not be among the Hawkeye greats at quarterback. However, his unwavering perseverance did more for this program than many of his predecessors. He instilled confidence through hardship that kept his teammates and the entire program afloat through multiple times of great difficulty. Throughout his career in black and gold, no other Hawkeye endured a pandemic, injury, criticism, failure, and ultimately success. Spencer Petras’ legacy at Iowa will not soon be forgotten.