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EVANSTON, ILL. — Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said Tuesday the “sky is not falling” for the Hawkeyes.
He was right, as No. 22 Iowa snapped its two-game losing skid with a 17-12 win over Northwestern Saturday night.
The Hawkeyes (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) proved that mostly without their starting quarterback, though.
After Petras tried to play three drives despite an injury and struggled, backup Alex Padilla took over and led the Hawkeyes to their best offensive performance since the 51-14 Maryland win on Oct. 1.
Padilla completed 64 percent of his passes for 172 yards.
“For Alex to come in there and look as comfortable and superior as he did, it’s just amazing to see,” running back Tyler Goodson said.
In Petras’ three drives, he completed 2-of-4 passes for 4 yards, including an uncharacteristically-underthrown pass to wide receiver Keagan Johnson.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Petras suffered the injury on a hit in the Wisconsin game.
“He hit the turf pretty hard and was nursing it all the way through the week,” Ferentz said.
Petras “made pretty good progress,” Ferentz said, and appeared to be healthy enough to play on Friday. He then noticed in warmups that Petras “didn’t look like he had a lot of zip on the ball.”
Goodson said the injury “had something to do with his shoulder” although he didn’t know specifics.
“It was in everybody’s best interests to get him out of there,” Ferentz said.
Iowa’s defense, meanwhile, forced several important turnovers.
Iowa linebacker Dane Belton grabbed the Hawkeyes’ first interception in four weeks, and cornerback Jermari Harris picked off an offline throw in the fourth quarter at a crucial time.
The Wildcats (3-6, 1-5) had an eight-play, 60-yard drive developing, and a score would’ve sliced Iowa’s lead to one possession. Instead, Harris’ interception set up a drive lasting almost four minutes.
Sloppy tackling by the Hawkeyes eventually allowed Northwestern to cut the double-digit lead to just 17-12, on a 31-yard catch-and-run by Evan Hull with 2:21 left in the game.
Iowa’s inability to score on all but one drive also contributed to its once-comfortable lead becoming quite uncomfortable in the second half.
But after the Wildcats held Iowa to a fast three-and-out, Belton then grabbed a second interception of Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty to end a potential game-winning drive and seal the win.
“That was obviously a big relief to see him make that play,” defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. “I was really excited, really relieved, but I can’t say I was surprised.”
Belton said Iowa’s defense was familiar with the play Northwestern ran that led to the interception.
“It was just a route concept that we had studied all week,” Belton said. “A lot of teams like to do it against us, and we had practiced it.”
Iowa’s offense saw a much-improved rushing attack, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, a stark contrast from the 2.9 yards per carry through the first eight games.
The Hawkeyes’ 185 rushing yards were more than in their last two games combined.
“To come back and be successful in the run game is a big deal,” Goodson said.
Goodson led the team with 141 rushing yards, the most for him since the Kent State win on Sept. 18. He also had three receptions for 25 receiving yards.
“Any time our offense is getting yards and flowing well, we’re going to get excited for them,” VanValkenburg said. “We had some good complementary football.”
Iowa’s improved results on offense came against a Northwestern defense that ranked 12th in the Big Ten entering play with 27.1 points allowed per game.
Iowa’s defense showed improvements beyond just the turnovers, holding the Wildcats scoreless on their first six drives. It was the longest Iowa has held an opposing offense scoreless in 2021.
It also kept a Northwestern offense that relies heavily on running the ball in check — the Wildcats averaged just 3.0 yards per carry.
Marty had two 11-yard rushes in the first four minutes of the game, but the senior never had a run for more than 6 yards after that.
Marty hit receivers several times on deep throws — he had five completions of 20-plus yards — but his accuracy was problematic. He finished with a 57 percent completion rate along with the two interceptions.
The win was just Iowa’s second in the last six games against the Wildcats.
Iowa is now in a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West at 4-2.
“We needed a win,” Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes will return to Kinnick for a high-stakes game against Minnesota (6-3, 4-2) on Nov. 13. Ferentz is hopeful Petras will be healthy enough to play in that.
“I don’t think it’s anything major,” Ferentz said. “Hopefully Monday, Tuesday, he’ll be back to full speed.”
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