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Citrus Bowl Preview: Iowa, Kentucky, and a Lot of Stoops Talk

Can Iowa punt their way to a win for the 11th time this year?

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Bryon Houlgrave/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

I didn’t really have time to outline this (in my head or otherwise), and I’m both preparing rubbish to eat for New Year’s Eve and watching a pair of two-year-olds destroy my living room, but let’s dive in.

The short version:

Who: #15 Iowa Hawkeyes vs #22 Kentucky Wildcats
What: The Vrbo Citrus Bowl
When: Noon (central)
Where: Camping World Stadium, Orlando
TV: ABC
Odds: Kentucky (-3), O/U 44

The long version:

It’s Kentucky’s first trip to this bowl since a 2018 victory over Penn State, and Iowa’s first trip since 2004 when negligent clock management led to a walk off touchdown against Nick Saban and the single most memorable play of my lifetime.

If you’re reading Off Tackle Empire you likely know how the Hawkeyes got here. Ferentz’s side punted their way to 10 wins and a division title. A solid defense was able to get enough turnovers and keep teams out of the end zone enough to win games with an offense getting a bare minimum amount of production. The three losses came against Purdue, Wisconsin, and in the conference championship game vs Michigan when the offense couldn’t quite get over that impossibly low bar.

On the other side, Kentucky started the year off 6-0 before dropping three consecutive games to Georgia, Mississippi State, and Tennessee. Mark Stoops’s formula for success has been simple: lean on his offensive line for more than 200 yards rushing per game, and chuck the ball up to Wan’Dale Robinson when they need to. This strategy was good enough for a 9-3 record and a trip to Orlando.

When Iowa Has The Ball

With Tyler Goodson opting out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft, Iowa’s #1 running back will be the senior, Ivory Kelly-Martin. IKM hasn’t had that many carries this season, injuries and a persistent fumbling bug caused him to lose his RB2 job to Gavin Williams, but he’s had a very solid career in Iowa City and I think he’s poised to have a pretty good day. Gavin Williams will probably get at least 40-50% of the carries alongside IKM.

The starting quarterback remains a mystery, and we likely won’t know until shortly before kickoff.

I think the smart money is on Spencer Petras getting the nod over Alex Padilla, but Kirk Ferentz isn’t exactly confident with either QB at the moment so unless his starter comes out and starts throwing dimes right from kickoff I think we’ll end up seeing both players at some point.

There’s also a slight chance that Joey Labas will see the field. By all accounts Labas has really stood out running the scout team offense this year, and with Deuce Hogan entering the transfer portal and the top two quarterbacks struggling all year the Ferentz brain trust might want to see what their presumptive future starter can do. It’s probably not likely, but in a bowl game with a team still looking for answers on offense anything is possible.

Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy is also in the transfer portal, but I don’t think it will change the calculus on offense that much. It probably means more snaps for Charlie Jones, but whichever quarterback plays tomorrow is probably going to target tight end Sam LaPorta more than anyone.

Even with all these changes, the offense is going to be exactly what you expect it to be. Lots of zone runs, lots of short passes to tight ends, lots of punts, not a lot of yards. The one wrinkle you’ll see will be our obligatory flea flicker that gets called seemingly at random. If they can score more points than the defense and special teams we can probably consider it a good day.

On the other side of the ball, Kentucky has a pretty good defense of their own, only allowing about 22 points per game. They don’t have any injuries or early departures on defense, so you can go ahead and assume Iowa is going to struggle to score points for the millionth game in a row.

When Kentucky Has The Ball

Iowa fans are going to see a few familiar faces on Kentucky’s offense. Quarterback Will Levis was recruited pretty heavily by Iowa before committing to Penn State. He started the game against Iowa last year before being pulled in favor of Sean Clifford. Kentucky’s leading receiver is former Nebraska Cornhusker Wan’Dale Robinson, who is quite frankly one of the most terrifying football players you can give the ball to. Wan’Dale has about 43% of the team’s receiving yardage, with 1,164 yards on 94 receptions.

The only other player on the team with more than 20 receptions or 200 yards is Josh Ali, who will miss the game due to injures sustained in a car accident. Iowa’s secondary is still missing Matt Hankins and Terry Roberts, but is otherwise healthy. You’re going to see Wan’Dale targeted on just about every single passing play, so a lot is going to ride on Iowa’s pass rush and ability to stop something when they know it’s coming. Personally, I hope they didn’t crack Purdue’s code for beating Iowa by having your entire offense go through one player that’s faster than everyone else.

Kentucky’s running back Chris Rodriguez Jr is averaging over 6 yards per carry this year, and with Iowa’s entire front 7 available this could be a defining matchup in the game if Iowa is able to keep the door shut on Wan’Dale.

Other Things That Might Be Interesting

In addition to Wan’dale and Levis, there will be a few other familiar faces on the sideline. Former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner is a grad assistant for the Cats, and it’s genuinely pretty cool that he gets to be there for this game.

Head coach Mark Stoops is an Iowa guy, having played DB for Hayden Fry. Expect Dusty Dvoracek to mention this fact between 4 and 74 times during the broadcast.

Kentucky’s backup running back is named Kavosiey Smoke, which is cool as hell.

Prediction

I was yelled at by my family for (correctly) predicting that Iowa would lose to Michigan in the conference championship, so I’m going full homer this time.
Iowa 13, Kentucky 11.

Bet the under, folks. Go Hawks!

Poll

For all the citrus:

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    Iowa
    (17 votes)
  • 32%
    Kentucky
    (8 votes)
25 votes total Vote Now

Poll

More importantly: Under 44, right?

This poll is closed

  • 83%
    Yeah.
    (20 votes)
  • 16%
    Over, actually?
    (4 votes)
24 votes total Vote Now