Iowa’s 20-17 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl was frustrating on multiple levels. Iowa’s passing game was as inconsistent as ever, producing backbreaking misfires, failing to feature the wide receivers in any meaningful way, and coming up short at the end of the game. Iowa’s defense, for all that it did well this season, once again struggled with finishing tackles and proved susceptible to being torched by an opposing #1 wide receiver. The Hawkeye coaching staff is being raked over the coals for two controversial 4th down decisions: one failed conversion attempt, and one decision to punt rather than go for it on fourth and short. The game served as a disappointing capstone to an uneven season full of spectacular highs and maddeningly frustrating lows.
Lost in the shuffle of Iowa’s defeat, however, were huge signs of growth for two position groups that had been cause for concern throughout much of 2021. Iowa’s line play was arguably the team’s weakest point on both sides of the ball this year, but a casual fan watching the Hawkeyes for the first time on Saturday would likely be surprised by that assessment. Iowa’s offensive line consistently dominated Kentucky at the point of attack, helping to propel a successful running game that racked up 173 yards and touchdown on 5.8 yards per carry despite the absence of starting running back Tyler Goodson. Even more surprising was how few negative plays the line allowed, as the Hawkeyes surrendered only two tackles for loss and gave up zero sacks against the Wildcats.
Meanwhile, Iowa’s defensive line may have been the Hawkeyes’ biggest bright spot on the other side of the ball. The Hawkeye front four harassed Kentucky quarterback Will Levis all day, totaling six sacks and another 1.5 tackles per loss on running plays. Even more impressive was that this performance came against an excellent Kentucky offensive line which was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award and featured a consensus All-American right tackle in Darian Kinnard who will surely hear his name called early in the 2022 NFL Draft. Iowa’s back seven has carried the water for most of 2021 but took a backseat to the outstanding performance of the defensive line in this contest.
What can help explain Iowa’s dramatic improvement up front? The Hawkeyes were certainly aided by the absence of key Wildcat players on both sides of the line (starting left tackle Dare Rosenthal and star defensive lineman Josh Paschal both missed the Citrus Bowl), but Saturday’s performance still showed clear signs of growth for both units. Iowa’s youth and inexperience up front held the team back for much of the season but carried the promise of growth as the players continued to develop within the program. The Citrus Bowl showed clear signs that Iowa’s young linemen are progressing, as the offensive and defensive lines looked far better against Kentucky than they had during most of the season. Iowa’s coaches regularly emphasize the importance that additional practices during bowl prep can have on the development of young players, and Iowa’s preparation for the Citrus Bowl clearly saw several young linemen make important strides that will set them up for success next season.
Youth certainly played a roll in Iowa’s struggles along the offensive line in 2021, but could the unit develop into less of a liability next year? The Hawkeyes will miss senior guard Kyler Schott (who finally looked healthy on Saturday and gave maybe his best performance of the season) and will likely lose all-world center Tyler Linderbaum to the NFL. But freshmen Connor Colby and Mason Richman flashed serious upside this season as they navigated the pitfalls of being young offensive linemen in the Big Ten, junior tackle Jack Plumb found his legs as the season progressed, and Justin Britt and Nick DeJong received valuable snaps over the course of the year that could pay dividends going forward. Add in a healthy Cody Ince and the potential for talented young players like David Davidkov, Michael Myslinski, and Beau Stephens to enter the equation and the Hawkeyes could be on track to roll out a far more consistent line in 2022.
Meanwhile, the defensive line is well positioned to weather the departure of senior Zach VanValkenburg thanks to the return of juniors Joe Evans, John Waggoner, and Noah Shannon. However, Iowa’s underclassmen may be the most exciting element of this unit and gave fans plenty of room for optimism on Saturday. Freshman Lukas Van Ness is already developing into a force as an interior pass rusher and could develop into a bona fide star if he can improve his production against the run. Defensive tackle Logan Lee was excellent against the Wildcats (minus one questionable penalty call for a late hit out of bounds) and improved as much as any player on the team over the course of the season. Deontae Craig (a freshman who got in on a tackle for loss against Kentucky) shows some serious burst rushing off the edge, while Yahya Black remains an intriguing piece on the interior of the defense.
Iowa’s defensive line rotation will also be aided by the return of players like Logan Jones (a former high school All-American who was injured for most of the year) and Ethan Hurkett (who played only a few games before going down with a knee injury), as well as the arrival of Aaron Graves, a four-star defensive lineman who has the size and talent to compete for reps as a true freshman. If Iowa’s young players can continue their growth and channel their pass rushing production from the Citrus Bowl, the Hawkeye defensive line could develop into a legitimate force in the 2022 campaign.
Iowa’s bowl game may have ended in heartbreaking fashion, but the play of the Iowa’s young linemen generated plenty of reason for optimism heading into next season. Iowa’s defensive line spent much of 2021 as an afterthought while the offensive line toed the line between underwhelming and disastrous. For the Hawkeyes to sustain or improve upon this season’s success in 2022, the team’s line play simply must be better. If Iowa’s young linemen can build off their encouraging performance in the Citrus Bowl, such a future may be much closer to reality than it seemed a few weeks ago.