It has to be Spencer Petras, right?

He’s back in the saddle for good as Iowa’s starting quarterback after riding to the rescue Friday against Nebraska, right?

There’s no way Alex Padilla starts Saturday night against Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game, right? Not after being pulled at halftime with the Hawkeyes trailing the Cornhuskers 14-6?

Well, Kirk Ferentz has a decision to make, or at least one to announce.

“We’ll probably say something on Tuesday,” Ferentz said. “It’s not like we’re trying to be coy.”

The 23rd-year head coach simply wants to discuss the situation with the players involved before revealing the decision. As far as he’s concerned, he has 2 solid options.

“I think both of them have really performed well during the course of the year,” Ferentz said.

He didn’t add “in an Iowa sort of way,” but maybe that goes without saying. The Hawkeyes (10-2) will be double-digit underdogs against B1G East champ Michigan, which is 11-1 and riding high coming off its first victory over Ohio State in a decade. And neither Petras nor Padilla will play a major role in upsetting the Wolverines. No, the key players for Iowa’s chances reside on defense, special teams and in the backfield in the person of 1,000-yard back Tyler Goodson.

Just a quick review of Friday’s comeback vs. the Huskers drives that point home. Iowa’s 19-point fourth quarter included a blocked-punt TD, a safety and a long field goal. The offense finally did score a touchdown for the final points of the 28-21 victory — on a 6-play drive that was all runs. Petras’ main contribution was taking a snap, pressing into the line and letting his linemen and other teammates push him across the goal line for a 2-yard score. Padilla probably could have done that.

The case for Petras

Experience matters, and Petras has an extra year in the program and a 17-3 advantage in starts over Padilla. He doesn’t fuel this offense, but he knows the intricacies of how it runs. He managed the Iowa attack during the team’s 12-game winning streak, never throwing more than 1 INT in a game in that stretch as the Hawkeyes climbed to No. 2 in the nation.

It’s worth remembering that Petras exited the Northwestern game 3 weeks ago because of a shoulder injury. Padilla had a chance to take the job and run with it, but he didn’t. He actually got worse with each start, culminating with him getting pulled Friday.

Here’s Padilla’s 4-game regression:

  • at NU (in relief of Petras): 18-28, 172 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
  •  vs. MINN: 11-24, 206 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
  • vs. ILL: 6-17, 83 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
  • at NEB: 6-14, 76 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs

In 7 appearances this year, Padilla is 45-of-97 (46.3%) for 598 yards with 2 TD throws and 1 INT. He hasn’t been much better than Petras at avoiding sacks, going down 7 times. Neither QB is a running threat.

Petras has completed 58.1 percent of his passes this year, and he’s been on the field in intense atmospheres in the CyHawk rivalry game in Week 2 and in the comeback victory over Penn State in Week 6. Padilla appeared in neither of those.

Right now, whatever his shortcomings, Petras is the better, more proven option for the huge game Iowa surprisingly finds itself in thanks to Minnesota knocking off Wisconsin on Saturday. He’s better equipped to account for Michigan edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo and take appropriate counter measures.

The good news for Iowa is that Michigan ranks a bit worse against the run than the pass, so maybe the title game plays out as a low-scoring field-position war with a lot of rushing plays. That would be the Hawks’ best bet.

If Iowa is forced to play catch-up, it’ll be in trouble, as it was when Petras threw 4 INTs in the 24-7 loss to Purdue. Brian Ferentz’s unit isn’t built to overcome large deficits, and that’s not so much a knock on the QBs as an acknowledgement of how this Iowa offense is constructed. The wide receivers are limited, and thus tight end Sam LaPorta leads the Hawks in catches and receiving yards.

If worst comes to worst, at least the Ferentzes have two options they’re comfortable with. Both Petras and Padilla have come through as starters and relievers, so there’s that.

With any luck, the struggles of Michigan QB Cade McNamara against the best ballHawking defense in the country will be the story of the game. Iowa won’t mind if its QBs fly under the radar, again.