Spencer Petras vs Alex Padilla: Looking at the Numbers Behind Iowa's QB Battle

By Mike Jones on November 30, 2021 at 12:00 pm
© Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports
© Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

I had thought there would be time to write a “Who should start for Iowa in the Big Ten Championship” post, but alas, Kirk Ferentz wanted to dispel any doubt about the quarterback situation and named Spencer Petras as Iowa’s starter. The depth chart:

First, this is a blog and I don’t have to be unbiased so I will say that I am on the Alex Padilla bandwagon and I think he should start in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday. He’s not going to start that game, but he should. Why? Well, let’s look at the numbers.

Going back to 2020, Iowa finished 6-2 and went on a six-game winning streak to close out the season. Petras started every one of those games and finished:

140/245, 1,569 yards, 57.1% completion percentage, 9 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 11 sacks

Let’s dive a bit deeper using the NCAA’s stats. Here’s where those stats ranked nationally:

  • Completion Percentage: 84th (57.1)
  • Passing Yards per Completion: 76th (11.21)
  • Passing Yards per Game: 66th (196.1)
  • Passing Efficiency: 89th (120)

Most of these stats are out of 108 players, so Petras safely ranked in the bottom half of every passing statistic kept track of by the NCAA.

Sacks allowed, a team stat, was a bright spot for Iowa, as they kept Petras upright. The Hawkeyes only gave up 11 sacks, all on Petras, placing them at 21st nationally.

How has Petras fared this year? More of the same, really. Here’s year one and two:

  Completions Attempts Yards Completion % TD INT Sack
2020 140 245 1,569 57.1 9 5 11
2021 137 236 1,532 58.1 9 6 23

The national rankings from this season?

  • Completion Percentage: 93rd (58.1)
  • Passing Yards per Completion: 91st (11.81)
  • Passing Yards per Game: 97th (153)
  • Passing Efficiency: 96th (118)

Caveats? Sure, there are caveats. Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette graduated. Iowa’s offensive line has been mostly abysmal this season, as they’ve allowed 31 sacks, putting them at 92nd in the nation. That said, you can attribute those factors to his poor performance but… his statistics this season really aren’t all that much different from last season, when he actually did have an offensive line and veteran receivers. Last year he wasn’t throwing the ball down the field. This year he also isn’t throwing the ball down the field. He was inefficient last season. He’s inefficient this season. Forget yards per game or even scoring. How about just stretching the field?

Padilla? Well, Padilla hasn’t played in enough games for the NCAA to rank him but we can compare the statistics in the 8.5 games Petras has played to the stats in the 3.5 games that Padilla has played, and throw some advanced stats in there as well.

  Completion % Yards per Completion Yards per Game TD% INT% Sack%
Petras 58.1 11.31 179 3.8 2.5 9.0
padilla 49.3 13.09 153 2.4 1.2 6.7

TD%: Touchdowns / Passes Attempted
INT%: Interceptions Thrown / Passes Attempted
Sack%: Times Sacked / Passes Attempted + Times Sacked

That’s the math. Nothing but facts here. Petras is going to complete a higher percentage of passes and is more likely to throw a touchdown. He’s also twice as likely to throw an interception, gets sacked 34% more than Padilla, and that yards per completion stat is… wow. 11.31 to 13.09 may not seem like much but if you look at the national rankings, 13.09 yards per completion would put Padilla at 38th nationally (compared to Petras' ranking of 91st). That's a pretty significant jump in yards per completion. Petras completes more passes but they go for fewer yards.

If the narrative is “Petras is the safer bet” uh… the statistics don’t really support that claim. He’s more interception-prone and takes more sacks. Sacks, of course, can lead to lost fumbles, like the one he lost against Wisconsin. He throws more touchdowns, yes, but at the cost of a higher turnover percentage.

While perusing the NCAA site you can also check the individual sack leaders and Hawkeye fans do I have (bad) news: Michigan has two of the top ten individual sack leaders in the nation. Aidan Hutchinson, defensive end, has 13 total sacks. David Ojabo, edge linebacker, has 11. That’s concerning!

Petras is the same player he was last year. He just has a worse offensive line and because of that, he’s taking more sacks because he doesn’t move in the pocket. Padilla is happy to throw on the run and down the field, which is why his completion percentage has been lower. The question against Michigan will be: can the offensive line protect Petras? With Hutchinson and Ojabo looming, I’m leaning towards "no." And if Iowa’s offense stalls because of multiple drive-killing sacks (let’s face it, one sack is usually enough to derail an entire drive for Iowa), will they stay the course or make the call for Padilla? If it comes to that, I sure hope they're not afraid to give Padilla another opportunity.

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