Game day is fast approaching from Orlando where the Iowa Hawkeyes are set to take on the Kentucky Wildcats in the VRBO Citrus Bowl. Saturday’s showdown will mark the first meeting between the two programs, but the ties between them run deep. The Wildcats are coached by former Hawkeye player and grad assistant Mark Stoops and the roster has a number of familiar names for Iowa fans thanks to the transfer portal.
To help us get a better understanding of what to expect from this SEC opponent, we sat down with Jason Marcum, managing editor for A Sea of Blue - SB Nation’s Kentucky site. Here’s a look at our discussion.
BHGP: Hawkeye fans are intimately knowledgeable about Mark Stoops’ past and his roots, but this being Iowa’s first meeting with Kentucky, we’re not nearly as knowledgeable on the program he’s built in Lexington. How has Stoops built a winner at what Hawkeye fans think of as a basketball school and what are some of the key tenets of his teams?
ASOB: Ever since Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington, he’s worked to build teams that could beat just about anyone in the trenches. Even his more passing-focused teams have had offensive lines that could maul teams into submission. It took him a while to establish that identity, but once it really got going in 2016, his teams have routinely had some of the SEC’s best offensive lines. His defenses tend to be more bend-don’t-break style, but he typically does a great job of maximizing what he has on that side of the ball.
However, Stoops has slowly evolved in recent years and focused on building a more dynamic offense that can win games through the air or on the ground. There’s no question Will Levis is the best QB he’s had. Though there were some growing pains early on, Levis was playing like one of the SEC’s best QBs by season’s end and has a very bright future ahead of him in 2022.
BHGP: The Wildcats have put up an impressive 33.3 points per game in 2021 with an offense that’s done it both on the ground and through the air. Hawkeye fans are familiar with signal-caller Will Levis from his time at Penn State, who are the other names to know on offense and what sort of scheme should we expect to see out of Kentucky on Saturday?
ASOB: Wan’Dale Robinson was one of the dual-threat players in college football during his time at Nebraska, but to reach the next level and potentially carve out a career in the NFL, he knew he had to commit to being a receiver full-time vs. being a receiver/running back. He ended up becoming one of the better receivers in college football this season and really helped lay the foundation for this passing game to continue expanding and hopefully take this program to new heights that were unreachable when this was a run-heavy team in an era of football that’s strongly gearing more toward the pass.
Offensively, Kentucky was a run-heavy team in previous years and, to a degree, still are. They have six games this season with 22 or fewer passes, but when they need to throw, Will Levis has been pretty effective over his last seven games. Part of that is the threat of him to run it, so even when he’s not throwing 30+ times a game, he’ll have several scrambles a game for big yardage that keeps defenses honest.
And we can’t forget about Chris Rodriguez, who plays like an old-school Big Ten back but does struggle holding onto the ball. He’s a true power runner who grinds out yards and will put teams away late in the game if Kentucky is up and trying to salt away the clock.
BHGP: On the other side of the ball, Kentucky comes in 24th in the nation in total defense, giving up just 22.1 points per game on the year. That’s a concern for Hawkeye fans who have followed a floundering offense all year that’s struggled to keep the QB clean or create any real running lanes. How do you expect Kentucky’s defense to attack Iowa and who are the key names to know on the defensive side of the ball?
ASOB: Defensive, Kentucky runs essentially a 3-3-5 with three linemen, two true linebackers, a jack linebacker that’s usually a good pass-rusher, two safeties, two cornerbacks, and a hybrid safety/linebacker depending on what the offense is going with. They typically focus heavily on stopping the run and keeping everything in front of them in the passing game, which sounds simple, but they’ve consistently done a good job of it during Kentucky’s six-straight bowl seasons.
MarQuan McCall is one of the better true nose tackles in college football and really helps anchor the run defense, which took a big step back when he was sidelined with an injury for several weeks. Kentucky was 6-0 in games he started, so when he’s playing.
Josh Paschal is what amounts to a great 3-4 defensive end who maintains his gap well and gets a lot of penetration into the backfield. Without good offensive line play, holding up against the combo of McCall and Paschal is very hard to do, as those two alone can ruin an offensive game plan, especially one more geared toward the run.
When it comes to pass-rushing, Kentucky has left a lot to be desired this season with just 29 sacks this season, 13 of which came against Louisiana Monroe/Vanderbilt/New Mexico State. But the Wildcats do have a budding star in J.J. Weaver, who could be in for a breakout game of sorts in the bowl if Iowa’s tackles can’t handle his speed rush.
BHGP: This is Iowa and that means we’re going to talk punting and by extension special teams. Colin Goodfellow appears to have a decent average at 46 yards per punt, but kicker Matt Ruffolo has only attempted 11 field goals on the season. How do the Wildcats stack up in a potential game of field position and do you trust Ruffolo if things come down to late-game heroics?
ASOB: Mark Ruffalo has been about as consistent of a kicker as one could hope for since 2019, as he’s hit 23 of his last 28 field goals, but he’s rarely been called upon to make clutch kicks late in the fourth quarter. Most of the games Kentucky has been in have been essentially over by the fourth quarter, so it would be interesting to see how he performs if called to kick, let’s say a 43-yarder to win a game at the gun. It’s simply not the kind of situation he’s used to, so that does bring some nervousness as to if he’s ready to make the big kick when it’s nut-cutting time.
As for Colin Goodfellow, he was shaky early on this season in his first as the primary punter, but he’s been fairly reliable overall.
BHGP: Alright, prediction time. DraftKings Sportsbook has this one at Kentucky -3 with an over/under set at 44 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?
ASOB: This is a very important game for Kentucky in terms of more validation for this team and continuing the program’s recent upward trend in hopes of reaching the next level in 2022. It’s no secret that Kentucky racked up a lot of wins against bad/below-average teams this season. As of Wednesday night, they don’t have a win over an FBS team with a winning record after Missouri, Florida and Louisville lost their bowl games. So there’s no question a win over Iowa would be the Wildcats’ best win and give validation that this 9/10-win season was no fluke.
Kentucky also had a potentially great foundation for a special 2022 season depending on what guys like RB Chris Rodriguez, LT Dare Rosenthal, LB Deandre Square and LB Jacquez Jones do, while QB Will Levis is already set to return and lead a passing game that should be just as dangerous next season since it will have more depth at wide receiver compared to this year when it relied exclusively on Wan’Dale Robinson. A win in the Citrus Bowl over a top-15 team would really spearhead momentum into next season and could help lay the foundation for a team that wins 10+ games.
This will be a close, hard-fought game that comes down to the 4th quarter, but I see Kentucky squeaking out a 27-23 win.
So there you have it - a close one, but the Kentucky side is calling for a second straight loss for the Hawkeyes and their first bowl loss since 2016. Here’s hoping things turn out a bit differently.
Thanks again to Jason Marcum of A Sea of Blue. Be sure to follow Jason on Twitter @marcum89. You can follow A Sea of Blue @ASeaOfBlue. It’s also worth taking a trip over to the site as they’ve got loads of content on this weekend’s matchup.