When Kentucky takes the field against Iowa on New Year’s Day, the Wildcats will be tasked with doing something no opponent has been able to accomplish against the Hawkeyes in five calendar years: give them a non-conference loss. The Hawkeyes are currently riding a nation-leading 15-game winning streak against non-conference opponents, with their last loss outside of Big Ten play coming at the hands of Florida in the 2017 Outback Bowl. A Hawkeye victory against Kentucky would also set a new program record for the most consecutive bowl wins with four, which speaks to how successful Kirk Ferentz has been at navigating bowl games of late after suffering several years of season-ending losses.
However, Kentucky will be a major roadblock for the Hawkeyes to keep their various winning streaks alive. The Wildcats are also riding a 15-game non-conference winning streak and are led by former SEC Coach of the Year and University of Iowa alumni Mark Stoops, a coach who has earned his reputation as one of the premiere program builders in college football. With a defensive-minded head coach who is intimately familiar with Iowa and an offense led by Big Ten transfers Will Levis (former Penn State quarterback) and Wan’Dale Robinson (former Nebraska wide receiver), expect a team that is fully prepared for Iowa’s physical style of play.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in Saturday’s game:
1. Can Iowa dominate the turnover battle?
Iowa’s ability to force turnovers has been the team’s saving grace all season long. The Hawkeyes boast the second best per-game turnover margin in the nation (+1.08) and have intercepted more passes this season (24) than any team in college football. The Wildcats, however, have been the polar opposite of the Hawkeyes, averaging the nation’s second worst per-game turnover margin (-1.08) and generating only nine total turnovers through 12 games, fewer than all but three teams. Iowa intercepted as many passes in its game against Maryland (six) as Kentucky did all season.
Can Iowa force the Wildcat offense into making mistakes with the ball? Kentucky quarterback Will Levis is a dual-threat weapon who has accounted for nearly 3,000 yards of total offense this season, but has also struggled with turnovers, throwing 12 interceptions and fumbling three times. If Levis plays as loosely with the ball in this game as he did during the back half of the season (Levis threw six interceptions in Kentucky’s final five games, including three picks against Mississippi State), Iowa’s ball-hawking defensive backs should have an opportunity to add to their already impressive interception total. Kentucky’s passing game could be particularly hamstrung by the absence of senior receiver Josh Ali (41 catches, 601 yards, three touchdowns) who will unfortunately miss the Citrus Bowl after sustaining injuries during a car accident.
However, forcing Kentucky to put the ball into the air will require the Hawkeyes to shut down a dangerous Wildcat rushing attack that is averaging the fourth most yards per carry in the nation (5.51). Powerful junior Christopher Rodriguez Jr. emerged as one of the SEC’s best running backs this season, while the speedy Kavosiey Smoke provides an excellent complimentary runner. Add in Levis’ contributions in the QB running game and the constant threat of Wan’Dale Robinson carrying the ball on a jet sweep and the Wildcats will have enough weapons on the field to test Iowa’s linebackers every time they run their vaunted RPO plays.
If Iowa’s defense (which has limited opponents to only 3.21 yards per carry) can slow Kentucky’s ground game and force Levis to test the mettle of Iowa’s secondary, the Hawkeyes could have an excellent chance to create short fields for their offense and short circuit Wildcat drives.
2. Can Iowa find any consistency with its passing game?
Tyler Goodson, the engine of Iowa’s rushing attack who accounted for nearly ¾ of Iowa’s yards on the ground in 2021, has opted not to participate in the Citrus Bowl to begin preparation for the NFL Draft. Goodson’s absence leaves Iowa with a major hole in its ground game against a Kentucky defense that has been stingy against the run all season. The Wildcats are allowing only 117.83 rushing yards per game thanks to the excellent play of linebackers Jacquez Jones and DeAndre Square as well as the disruptive run-stuffing play of defensive end Joshua Paschal off the edge.
While Gavin Williams and Ivory Kelly-Martin may prove capable of picking up some of Goodson’s production on the ground, there is a good chance that Iowa may have to attack Kentucky’s defense through the air to move the ball effectively. While the Wildcats have excelled against the run this season, they have shown some vulnerability in defending the pass. Opposing quarterbacks facing Kentucky have put up an average quarterback rating of 139.60, thrown 19 touchdowns against only six interceptions, and have completed a whopping 66.8% of their passes, the 10th highest percentage allowed by any team in college football. If Iowa’s ground game falters, the Hawkeyes should have opportunities to attack the Wildcat defense through the air.
Can Iowa’s passing game capitalize on these opportunities? Neither Spencer Petras nor Alex Padilla have been particularly efficient this season, with Iowa’s quarterbacks combining to complete only 54% of their passes and averaging a mere 6.2 passing yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Paschal and linebacker J.J. Weaver combine to form a dangerous pass rushing duo who have posted 11.5 sacks this season and should be able to get pressure against an Iowa line that has allowed 32 sacks. Whichever quarterback gets the start for Iowa must prove that he can move within the pocket, consistently hit open receivers, and get the ball to playmakers like Keagan Johnson and Sam LaPorta if the Hawkeye offense is going to put points on the board in this game.
3. Can Iowa find a way to win on 3rd down?
Third down has been a nightmare for the Iowa offense all season long, but the Wildcats have had the exact opposite experience in 2021. While the Hawkeyes are converting only 1/3 of their third down attempts, Kentucky boasts the nation’s 5th best conversion percentage (51.47). The Wildcats have done an excellent job staying ahead of the chains and avoiding negative yardage plays (they have allowed the tenth fewest tackles for loss this season with 51) and relied on the bruising running of Will Levis and Christopher Rodriguez to convert on short yardage plays. While Kentucky’s offense can sustain long drives and keep its defense off the field, Iowa’s struggles on third down have left them largely dependent on the occasional big play or contributions from the defense and special teams to get its offense into scoring position.
To win the Citrus Bowl, Iowa must find a way to mitigate Kentucky’s advantages on third down. Iowa’s defense needs to win on 1st and 2nd down to keep the Wildcat offense out of third-and-short situations and neutralize the threat posed by the QB run game on potential conversion opportunities and play stout against the run whenever they fail to do so. Similarly, Iowa’s offense can improve its chances of converting on 3rd down by avoiding negative offensive plays on first and second. The fewer times Iowa has to ask its quarterback to make throws downfield on obvious passing downs behind a shaky offensive line, the better chance the Hawkeyes stand of keeping their drives alive. However, if Iowa fails to solve its third down woes, Hawkeye fans could be in for one last offensive disaster before season’s end and could see the team’s winning streaks come to an unfortunate end.