I’ll level with you. If you’ve come here for an in depth breakdown of the X’s and O’s of yesterday’s game, you’ve come to the wrong place. This season, I’ve been writing the Morning After late on Saturday nights after I’ve let the gut reactions and emotions of Iowa’s games settle down. As such, I don’t always remember what the third play of Iowa’s fifth drive of the day was (a Joe Labas run for four yards on 3rd and 5), or how many of Tory Taylor’s punts were downed inside the ten (four).
Add in a healthy dose of New Years Eve parties, food and drinks, and New Years Six bowl games and it’s a wonder I’m even awake right now.
But amidst the confetti, gin and tonics, and TCU Cinderella runs let’s not forget that your Iowa Hawkeyes defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 21-0 in the TransPerfect Music City Bowl to finish the year 8-5. There wasn’t a lot of fireworks, offensively anyway, and the story going into the game was just what would this game between two teams missing their starting quarterbacks and a laundry list of other players look like.
In a way...it was beautiful. As long as you’re an Iowa fan who loves special teams and defense. And if that happens to be you, thank you for taking the time to read this article, Coach Ferentz.
Third string quarterback Joe Labas got the start and, all things considered, played pretty solidly. No, he didn’t put up flashy numbers but with this offense what did you really expect. He did tally his first collegiate touchdown pass, a five yarder to Luke Lachey who muscled his way into the end zone, and showed nice awareness and decision making, especially early in the game. Labas ended the day having gone 14/24 for 139 yards and that one touchdown. Nothing that will light the world on fire, but in a game like this one he didn’t need to. He got the ball into his best playmakers and didn’t turn the ball over. As long as the defense was cooking, that was enough to win the game.
And oh, that defense. Really, what else is there to be said that hasn’t already been said about this group. No, this Music City Bowl didn’t feature gaudy offensive numbers or big plays, but watching this defense in this game and all year long was like watching Mozart compose a symphony. Once Lachey dove into the end zone and the Hawks went up a touchdown things were looking pretty good. As soon as Xavier Nwankpa grabbed his first collegiate pick six and the Hawks went up 14-0 the game already felt locked up. The Cooper DeJean interception return for a touchdown was the cherry on top.
While Labas and the offense got most of the attention for missing key pieces, the defense had their own big shoes to fill. Kaevon Merriweather opted out of the game to focus on the NFL draft, and Terry Roberts entering the transfer portal the pressure was on the secondary. They stepped up in a big way. Sebastian Castro was all over the field, defending passes and making big open field tackles, while Nwankpa excelled in his first career start. Phil Parker will rest easier seeing what the future holds.
That is not to say what losses there will be won’t hurt. You don’t lose people like Riley Moss and Jack Campbell without missing a step, at least in the beginning. It’s been a pleasure seeing Moss grow from getting burned by Purdue receivers early in his career to being one of the Big Ten’s best defensive backs, while Campbell has been as solid as Gibraltar for this team during one of the rockiest seasons in recent history. In a year where the outside noise became deafening, players like Moss, Campbell, and many others kept the team focused and came oh so close to achieving another special season. They’ll leave a legacy of excellence the young players can strive to continue.
Perhaps that’s the best metaphor as we enter a brand new year full of promise and optimism. Your 2022 may have been like this Iowa season: sometimes hopeful, sometimes painful, and sometimes straight up broken. But the pieces for a solid 2023 are right there in front of you. Iowa’s pieces are all right there, and some big new additions are coming in that should help out tremendously. The Music City Bowl may not have had any national relevance, especially being overshadowed in its own time slot by the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but it’s 1,000 times better to close out the season with a win than a loss. No matter in what way that win comes I’m going to enjoy it.
Happy New Year, Hawkeye fans. Be excellent to each other and enjoy all the good things life and this sport we love have to offer.