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ORLANDO, FL – On New Year’s Day, the Vrbo Citrus Bowl pits two teams from two of the nation’s top college football conferences against each other. The #17 Iowa Hawkeyes of the Big Ten conference will face the Southeastern Conference’s #25 Kentucky Wildcats.
While Kentucky may not hold the same notoriety as some of its SEC brethren when they were featured in the Citrus Bowl in 2018, they surprised the college football public by beating Penn State. This year, they have the opportunity to do the same thing to the Big Ten’s runner-up as the Wildcats’ head coach Mark Stoops will be preparing his squad to face his alma mater where he played.
Iowa made it to the Big Ten conference championship game on the back of one of the best defensive secondaries in the nation in conjunction with one of the best running backs in football, Tyler Goodson. Goodson accounted for 1,151 yards on 256 carries with six touchdowns, but will not be available in the Citrus Bowl as he is planning to enter the NFL draft.
Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz commented on Goodson opting out for the Citrus Bowl:
“Really, it’s just part of the landscape we’re living in right now. I think we are seeing a lot of things now that some would have thought were going to happen or could maybe happen five years ago and it’s just the world we live in.”
Ferentz went on to show support for Goodson’s actions: “I respect Tyler’s decision. I respect Tyler a great deal. To me, it’s like anybody. It’s your job to do your job and do it as well as you can day in and day out and if you do that, when you walk away you should feel good about things and Tyler has certainly done that. I appreciate the fact that he was prompt with his decision. It allowed us to prepare knowing that we wouldn’t have him. “
While Ivory Kelly-Martin is set to take his spot as the starting running back, the quarterback situation has its own uncertainty. Coach Ferentz has yet to officially name a starting quarterback leading up to game day.
Spencer Petras has been battling with a shoulder injury throughout the year, with Alex Padilla waiting in the wings to make his mark on the Hawkeyes program.
But the real focus of the contest will be the matchup of Kentucky’s offense featuring quarterback Will Levis and Iowa’s DBs, who have combined for 27 interceptions on the year. Levis is impressive as a passer with 2,593 yards in the air and a 67% completion rate with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
With running back Christopher Rodriguez putting up 1,271 yards on the ground in support of Levis’ air attack, the Wildcats present a truly balanced offense. It could set up opportunities for Wan’Dale Robinson to haul in some big plays even when challenged by Dane Beldon, Riley Moss and the rest of the Iowa defensive backs.
That’s not to say that the Hawkeyes’ defensive front is incapable. While Belton and Moss are posting a combined nine interceptions and 12 passes defended in 2021 is impressive, linebacker Jack Campbell and his 126 tackles on the year speak volumes on their own. And that’s not even to mention defensive lineman Zack Vanvalkenburg with his 12.5 tackles for loss.
Coach Stoops paid respect to Iowa’s defense in recounting turning on the film to watch them. “Immediately it put a smile on my face. Well, it was a frown and a smile. The frown was, ‘oh damn, they are pretty darn good.’ But the smile was how I love the fundamentals of the game and [with Iowa defensive coordinator] Phil [Parker] and his defense and the entire program you see that the minute you put on the film.”
At the end of the day, the Citrus Bowl will likely come down to the unstoppable force that is the Wildcats offense and the immovable object that is the Hawkeye defense.