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Music City Bowl: Previewing Iowa vs Kentucky

Iowa football began 2022 with a loss to Kentucky. Can the Hawkeyes end the year on a high note by getting revenge?

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

On January 1, 2022, the Hawkeyes opened the new year by losing the Citrus Bowl to the Kentucky Wildcats. Now, on December 31, 2022, Iowa will bring the year to a close when it takes the field in the Music City Bowl to play…the Kentucky Wildcats. This bit of symmetry is the perfect metaphor for a team that spent 2022 largely content to stay the same. Despite the disappointing end to last season, Iowa opted not to change its offense, coaching staff, or quarterback. Instead, the program doubled down on the approach that won it the Big Ten West in 2021, only to see it yield diminishing results this year. Now, the Hawkeyes find themselves ending the year the same way they began it, only playing a poorer brand of football in a worse bowl game against an inferior version of the Wildcats than they faced in January.

And yet there are real signs of change brewing within the Iowa program as it closes the book on 2022. The Hawkeyes have been aggressive players in the transfer portal this offseason and have locked down highly touted Michigan transfers Cade McNamara and Erick All in hopes of revitalizing the offense. Meanwhile, Iowa will start a quarterback other than Spencer Petras for the first time all season when redshirt freshman Joe Labas takes the field on Saturday, which is made no less significant by the fact that it was precipitated by the injury and transfer of the top two QBs on the depth chart. Iowa’s dire quarterback situation certainly poses a challenge to the Hawkeyes but will also force the coaching staff to get creative and think outside the box in a way they have rarely shown themselves willing to this year. Win or lose, Hawkeye fans may leave the Music City Bowl with a better grasp of how capable their coaches are of adapting to change and, if so, what sorts of wrinkles might be in store for the team next season.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in Saturday’s game:

1. Which team can coax the most production from its backup quarterback?

While Joe Labas has never taken a collegiate snap, he will not be the only inexperienced quarterback pressed into service in this game. Thanks to the opt-out of Kentucky’s starting quarterback Will Levis, the Wildcats will be rolling with freshmen Destin Wade or Kaiya Sheron or former Hawkeye third-stringer Deuce Hogan under center. Each team’s young quarterbacks will face one of the best passing defenses in the country. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats are each allowing only 173 passing yards per game, both teams rank in the top 20 nationally in both opposing QB rating and opponent fewest passing yards per attempt, and neither team has given up more passing touchdowns this year than they have forced interceptions. Fans tuning in hoping to see explosive passing games may want to look elsewhere.

Still, both teams will have to muster up some semblance of a passing game if they hope to win, and the team that is able to wring the best performance from its young signal-caller will have a clear advantage. Iowa’s receiving corps has been diminished by the loss of Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV, yet the Hawkeyes still have potential matchup advantages in the form of tight ends Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey. Kentucky linebackers Jordan Wright and Trevin Wallace have been solid in coverage this season, but their ability to run with Iowa’s tight ends might be the difference between shutting down Iowa’s passing attack and giving Labas a fighting chance. Meanwhile, Kentucky will have its top three wide receivers available in Barion Brown, Dane Key, and Tayvion Robinson. While Iowa’s All-Big Ten cornerbacks Cooper DeJean and Riley Moss have locked down opposing receivers for most of the year, the Hawkeyes will be without star strong safety Kaevon Meriweather in this game, and Iowa’s loss to Nebraska in the regular season finale happened largely due to their reserve defensive backs’ inability to hold up in coverage after injury forced them into service. Whether the Hawkeyes decide to play more 4-3 defense against the Wildcats or place their trust in young players like freshman Xavier Nwankpa, the Hawkeyes will have to be disciplined enough on the back end to avoid creating easy opportunities for Kentucky’s young quarterbacks.

2. Can Iowa’s ground game carry the offense?

While Kentucky will be without star running back Chris Rodriguez in addition to being down its starting QB, the Hawkeyes at least have the luxury of having both Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams on hand for this matchup. Iowa’s rushing attack has been underwhelming this season, averaging fewer yards per carry (2.92) and per game (97.25) than any team in the Big Ten. Yet the Hawkeye offense has looked far better in games when it has been able to run the ball effectively, and Kaleb Johnson’s big games against Purdue (200 rushing yards, one TD) and Nevada (103 rushing yards and two TDs on only seven carries) show what a dangerous weapon he can be when properly utilized.

Furthermore, Iowa may be able to inject a genuine running threat at the quarterback position for the first time this season. Labas ran for 486 yards and 9 touchdowns as a high school senior on over 7 yards per carry, and Iowa has been practicing more read-option and RPO looks during bowl prep in hopes of capitalizing on their new quarterback’s running talents. Petras’ lack of mobility has hurt Iowa’s rushing totals this year not only due to his struggles avoiding a pass rush, but due to the ability of opposing defenses to key in on Iowa’s backs on running plays without any fear of the QB keeping the ball and punishing them for overcommitting. Not only could Labas contribute rushing yards in his own right, but his ability to hurt the defense with his legs might give Kentucky pause in focusing too heavily on Jonson and Williams.

Under normal circumstances, Iowa should feel decently about its chances on the ground against the Wildcats. Kentucky’s run defense has been unspectacular this season and its opponents are averaging a generous 4.31 yards per carry, the 88th best average allowed in college football this year. Yet Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is an excellent defensive strategist, and the smart money is on him dialing his defense in on stopping Iowa’s run game and forcing Labas to beat them with his arm. Iowa’s defense should be able to contain Kentucky’s run game with Rodriguez out, but the Hawkeyes will have a clear advantage if they are able to prevent the Wildcats from doing the same.

3. Which team can wreak the most havoc with their pass rush?

Both Iowa and Kentucky have proven vulnerable to the pass rush this season, giving up over three sacks a game and ranking 110th and 123rd respectively in weekly sack rate. Yet only one of these teams has proven effective at getting to the quarterback in 2022. While the Hawkeyes have compiled 30 sacks this year largely on the strength of their deep and talented defensive line, Kentucky has managed to bring opposing quarterbacks down behind the line only 19 times this year. The more disruptive Iowa’s front four can be with their pass rush, the more difficult a time Kentucky’s young quarterbacks will have throwing into the teeth of Iowa’s defensive back seven. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes are mixing up the right side of their line by starting freshman Gennings Dunker at right guard and veteran Nick DeJong at right tackle. If Iowa’s much-maligned front five manages to maintain a clean pocket for Labas to throw from, it could give the Hawkeye offense a fighting chance against a disciplined and accomplished Kentucky defense.