EVANSTON, Ill. — Alex Padilla has a headset on the sidelines, so he knew what was coming.
It was going to be his time to run Iowa’s offense.
Padilla, Iowa’s backup quarterback, had been working on-and-off with the No. 1 offense throughout the week because starter Spencer Petras was dealing with an injured right shoulder.
So, when Petras was sore and struggling in Saturday’s game at Northwestern, it was clear a change was going to have to be made.
“I hear everything that’s going on,” Padilla said. “I heard the coaches were talking about it.”
Padilla came in and led the Hawkeyes to touchdowns in back-to-back possessions, and then managed the rest of the game as Iowa left with a 17-12 win.
The victory snapped a short-although-it-seemed-longer two-game losing streak for the Hawkeyes (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Ten), who found themselves in the four-way traffic jam at the top of the West Division standings heading into the final three weeks of the season.
“We needed a win,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and the guys did a good job of fighting for it.”
Iowa hadn’t won since the October 9 home victory over Penn State. The losses to Purdue and Wisconsin, sandwiched around the Hawkeyes’ bye week, made this current skid seem interminable.
“Obviously it’s been a while since our last win,” said defensive end Zach Van Valkenburg.
Petras was injured late in last Saturday’s loss at Wisconsin, and it was something that lingered throughout the week. Padilla got work with the No. 1 offense, but Ferentz thought Petras looked good enough on Friday to start.
But Ferentz could see that Petras was struggling with the velocity of his throws in pre-game warmups. And when Petras completed just 2-of-4 passes for just four yards on Iowa’s first three possessions, Ferentz and his staff knew something had to change.
“I think all of us were seeing the same thing,” Ferentz said. “Spencer just couldn’t throw it, he couldn’t throw it. Not with any zip on it.”
Padilla heard the discussion among the offensive coaches over the headset, but still, “It was kind of out of the blue, a surprise to me,” he said. “But there was no time to think about it. You just have to go in and execute the plays.”
Padilla’s first pass was a 2-yard completion to tight end Sam LaPorta. Then he completed a 17-yarder to Keagan Johnson, and then a 26-yarder two plays later that put the Hawkeyes at the Northwestern 13-yard line. Tyler Goodson scored on a 13-yard run two plays later, and Iowa led 7-0.
That touchdown lifted the heavy weight of the offensive struggles that had been crushing the Hawkeyes.
“For Alex to come in there and look as comfortable and superior as he did, it’s just amazing to see,” Goodson said.
Johnson has been working a lot with Padilla in practice, so what happened wasn’t a surprise.
“I knew if he came in, he would be ready,” Johnson said.
“It was definitely a confidence boost,” Padilla said. “To be able to put together a touchdown drive at a crucial point of the game … it’s always good to get touchdowns.”
The Hawkeyes scored on their next possession after Dane Belton’s interception gave them back the ball. Iowa went on a 9-play, 83-yard drive, finished with a 10-yard touchdown run by Arland Bruce IV. Iowa was up 14-0, matching the number of points they had scored the last two games.
Northwestern (3-6, 1-5) wasn’t about to come up with any offense to match that quick burst. The Wildcats got just two field goals from Charlie Kuhbander, and made the finish a bit interesting with a late touchdown catch-and-run by Evan Hull with 2:21 to play.
But Iowa forced three turnovers — two interceptions by Belton, including one in the closing 1:30 that allowed the Hawkeyes to run out the clock, and one by Jermari Harris.
The Wildcats’ offensive inefficiency played right into the Hawkeyes’ hands. Padilla wasn’t asked to be too aggressive, and Iowa’s running game, led by Goodson’s 141 rushing yards, allowed the Hawkeyes to control the clock.
“It felt amazing, you know?” said Goodson, who had gone 94 carries without a touchdown, the longest streak of his career.
Padilla completed 18-of-28 passes for 172 yards.
“You’ve got to prepare every week like you’re a starter,” Padilla said. “You just have to be ready and waiting for the opportunity, and don’t waste that opportunity when it comes around.”
Padilla didn’t waste it.
Ferentz, of course, was asked about what was next with the quarterback spot. That, he said, was something that would be taken “a day at a time.”
“You can’t downgrade Spencer because he couldn’t go full-speed,” Ferentz said. “We’ll see where that is next week.
“To be a quarterback of a team that wins, that’s a real positive. I know this — Spencer’s led us to a lot of victories, and tonight Alex did. To me, it’s a good situation.”
Everyone, it seemed, was asked for an opinion.
VanValkenburg, who had two quarterback hurries in this game, was even consulted. He admitted he wasn’t a quarterback expert.
“Obviously he did a good job and we got the win,” VanValkenburg said. “So, no complaints here.”