Tennessee And Iowa To Blend Offense And Defense In The Cheez-It Citrus Bowl

  • By Kyle Nash
  • December 31, 2023
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This year’s Cheez-It Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida features the Big 10 Conference Runners-Up in the #17 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-3) and the Southeast Conference’s #21 Tennessee Volunteers. A stalwart defense against a fleet-footed offense.

As the longest active head coach in college football, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz continues to field a relentless crew on defense. The 2023 edition is fourth in the nation in points allowed per game. Conversely, they are among the lowest-ranked offenses in the country. More often than not, they rely on running back Leshon Williams to move the ball in a cloud of dust. Williams has carried 164 times, leading the team in rushing with 804 yards.

 

When they do ask quarterback Deacon Hill to pass the ball, the most production has come from tight end Erick All, who has 299 yards this season. He will be missing this game due to injury. That is a significant blow to their limited passing attack. However, Tennessee currently has nine players who will not be participating in this New Year’s Day contest which might make passing the ball a bit more tenable.

Tennessee’s Josh Heupel, who started his head coaching career in Orlando with UCF, has been known for his fast-tempo offense that keeps opponents off-balance. His squad averages 31.5 points per game with Joe Milton at quarterback. The prospect of facing the Hawkeyes with a linebacker like Jay Higgins who has 155 tackles, an edge rusher like Joe Evans who had 9.5 tackles for loss with 5.5 sacks, and a defensive back like Sebastian Castro who has three interceptions with eight passes defended, is daunting enough.

 

It gets far worse for the Volunteers considering Milton and 1,000-yard rusher Jaylen Wright are both sitting out to prepare for the NFL Draft. With Jabari Small also opting out of the game at the running back position, the Vols will look to Dylan Sampson to run the football and freshman QB Nico Iamaleava to take snaps under center.

With the volume of young players for Tennessee facing an intimidating Iowa machine on defense, the Vol’s defense may find an opportunity to create some chances to score against a weaker Hawkeyes’ offense by getting some takeaways.  If defensive lineman James Pearce Jr. and edge rusher Aaron Beasley can limit Williams running the ball for Iowa, then defensive back Jalen McCullough and the rest of the secondary may just need to play mop-up duty when Hall attempts to pass the ball.

That’s assuming, of course, that Heupel’s offense doesn’t sputter quickly and often to keep his defense on the field longer to tire them out. It will be interesting to see if Tennessee slows their offense down to prevent this.

Either way, both programs have an opportunity to show the country that they are more than just “also-rans” in their respective conferences.

Kyle Nash

Kyle is from Orlando, Florida

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