And just like that, the Iowa football season is coming to a close. In typical Hawkeye fashion, Iowa gave fans a reason for optimism. Heading into a Black Friday showdown with a reeling Nebraska team, the Hawkeyes needed to just not completely trip all over themselves to return to Indianapolis as Big Ten West Champions for the second straight season. This despite featuring the worst power five offense in the nation all season and bringing the fanbase to the brink of revolt at one point during the year.
But alas, it was not meant to be and the expectations most had early in the year proved to be too much. Iowa tripped all over itself in all three phases to cough up the West and finish right where the fanbase thought things were heading halfway through the season: blah.
Now, the Hawkeyes are set to wrap up the 2022 season the same way they did the 2021 season: with a bowl game against the Kentucky Wildcats. However, this year’s showdown is in the Music City Bowl rather than the Citrus Bowl and both teams will be taking the field in Nashville with a slew of key pieces missing from the lineup.
While the Wildcats were led a season ago by a passing attack that featured QB Will Levis and WR Wan’Dale Robinson, the latter is currently in the NFL while the former has opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. But Levis is not alone in his decision to forego the Music City Bowl. The Wildcats will also be without starting RB Chris Rodriguez, as well as his top backup Kavosiey Smoke. The duo combined for 1,181 yards and 7 TDs on 233 carries (67% of non-QB rushing attempts in 2022).
On the offensive side of the ball, Kentucky has also lost a trio of wide receivers, though none were major contributors during the regular season. More impactful, however, may be the loss of one TE, Keaton Upshaw, to the transfer portal. Upshaw finished with just four catches for 50 yards on the year, but notably, the Wildcats will also be without tight ends Brendan Bates and Josh Kattus for the bowl game due to injury. The trio had combined for 29 catches and 229 yards on the season.
The departures and injuries leave more questions for a Kentucky offense that only managed 22.1 points per game in 2022. The lack of production led former Hawkeye and Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops to fire first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello at season’s end. Now Kentucky is set to face off against a top-5 defense nationally with an interim OC, no starting QB named and loads of missing pieces across the offense.
But that’s not where the question marks end. On the defensive side of the ball, Kentucky will also be without starting corner Carrington Valentine, who like Rodriguez and Levis, has opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft. The Wildcats are also looking to replace super senior linebacker DeAndre Square, who has missed the last three games due to injury.
It’s a similar story for the Hawkeyes, who are of course set to be without starting QB Spencer Petras and backup Alex Padilla. Iowa is also hemorrhaging at the receiver position with Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce in the transfer portal (and there have been reports of Brody Brecht missing practice time this week), while backup RB Gavin Williams has also left the program.
On the defensive side of the ball, safety Kaevon Merriweather has opted to prepare for the NFL Draft, likely pushing freshman Xavier Nwankpa into a starting role when the Hawkeyes go with their base 4-2-5. In the 4-3, Sebastian Castro (who is the recent starter at CASH) is earmarked as the starter at SS beside Quinn Schulte, but it will be interesting to see how Phil Parker opts to shift pieces around as it would seem keeping continuity in the back end might be a positive.
Here’s a look at what you need to know about this weekend’s matchup.
Date: Saturday, December 31st
Time: 11:00 am CT
Matchup: Iowa Hawkeyes (7-5, 5-4) vs Kentucky Wildcats (7-5, 3-5)
Location: Nissan Stadium - Nashville, TN
Preliminary Weather Forecast: cloudy with temps in the upper 50s, 80% chance of rain fading as the day progresses
DraftKings Opening Line: Iowa -2, O/U 31
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
The Hawkeyes and Wildcats have faced each other exactly one time in the history of the two programs. That, of course, came a season ago when Kentucky defeated Iowa 20-17 in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl.
While this will mark the second consecutive season the two schools face each other in a bowl game, there is not much that’s remained the same about the two starting lineups. Only Iowa’s Sam LaPorta returns having scored a TD in the Citrus Bowl a season ago. Kentucky’s kicker, Matt Ruffalo, is the only other player to score in last year’s bowl game and play in the upcoming Music City Bowl.
A year ago, the Wildcats jumped out to an early lead, which grew to as large as 10 points with a 13-3 halftime lead. But the Hawkeyes scored 14 unanswered points to start the second half and led until Chris Rodriguez scored from 6 yards out with 1:48 remaining in the game to put the Wildcats ahead for good. Iowa attempted a 2-minmute drill drive to win the game, pushing the ball across midfield and into Kentucky territory before QB Spencer Petras was picked off by linebacker DeAndre Square at the Wildcat 26 yard line with 48 seconds remaining to seal the game.
Kentucky QB Will Levis finished with 233 yards, 1 TD and 1 interception on 17 of 28 passing in the contest. That bested the aforementioned Petras, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 211 yards and 1 TD with 3 INTs. As noted, neither QB will be playing on Saturday.
Similarly, both leading rushers from the Citrus Bowl will be missing this weekend. Iowa was led by Gavin Williams with 98 yards on 16 carries while the Wildcats were led by Rodriguez, who finished with 107 yards and a TD on 20 carries. JuTahn McClain, who finished with 28 yards on 10 carries a year ago, is expected to play for Kentucky.
The biggest missing piece from a year ago, however, might not be an opt out or transfer, but rather an NFL draftee. Kentucky’s Wan’Dale Robinson finished last year’s matchup with a staggering 170 yards on 10 catches. All other Kentucky targets combined for 63 yards on 7 total catches. Both Brendan Bates (1 catch for 6 yards) and Chris Rodriguez (1 catch for 5 yards and 1 TD) are out for this contest while TE Justin Rigg (2 catches for 11 yards) is now with the Cincinnati Bengals.
For the Hawkeyes, despite the losses of Johnson (DNP a year ago) and Bruce (4 catches for 24 yards), most of the production from the Citrus Bowl returns. TE Sam LaPorta led the way with 122 yards and a TD on 7 catches a year ago and figurest to feature prominently Saturday. Ditto for fellow TE Luke Lachey, who finished with two catches for 27 yards a year ago.