ORLANDO, FL – The Vrbo Citrus Bowl kicked off as the only one of the three bowls Orlando hosts to feature a pair of nationally-ranked teams in the #15 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-4) and #22 Kentucky Wild Cats (10-3). As both programs were winners in their previous Citrus Bowl appearances, it would be Kentucky who would leave the Camping World Stadium with a streak maintained, thanks to a 20-17 victory.
Throughout the weeks approaching the game, the longest-tenured head coach in college football, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, didn’t announce a starter. As the Hawkeyes opened the game on offense, the mystery was solved when Spencer Petras took the field, where they went three and out.
On the next drive, the announced Kentucky starting quarterback, Will Levis, capped off the game’s first scoring drive with a five-yard pass to running back Chris Rodriguez. Levis completed his first seven passes before finishing the Citrus Bowl with 17-of-23 passing for 233 yards and one touchdown and an interception.
Both defenses held off their opponents to scoring field goals before heading into the locker room. Iowa’s Caleb Shudak hit one from 21 yards out. Wildcat kicker Matt Ruffalo booted in a 21 and 27-yarder. Considering that Petras threw two interceptions in the first half, the Hawkeyes kept it close with a 13-3 halftime score.
In the third quarter with 3:21 remaining, Iowa started to fight back. Not only did they convert their first third down of the day after missing the previous five, Arlen Bruce also smashed his way to pay dirt with a 20-yard touchdown to make it 13-10.
The fourth quarter was where the real excitement began. The Hawkeyes converted on another third down to set up the touchdown that earned them the lead for the first time on the afternoon.
Sam Laporta hauled in the pass from Petras for 36 yards that was the longest play posted by his squad. With nearly 4:00 remaining and the score at 17-13, Iowa’s Jemari Harris intercepted Levis and the comeback looked all but complete for Iowa.
That was until Levis found Wan’Dale Robinson for a 52-yard bomb that set up the go-ahead touchdown, which was a six-yard carry by Rodriguez.
Robinson won Player of the Game honors, hauling in 10 catches for 170 yards but paid tribute to his running back for playing his part in keeping Kentucky’s attack two-dimensional.
“C-Rod, he comes to work every week. There’s definitely times during the week that you could see that he was banged up just from the weeks before and how much we were running him. I think he’s the best back in the SEC. And I think he’s going to do whatever he can to get us those extra yards and not move backwards and just fight for us. That’s what makes C-Rod special.”
Rodriguez finished the game with 107 yards and 20 carries and a touchdown on the ground, while also contributing a touchdown catch.
Iowa had a chance to answer with 1:48 left in the game, but Petras threw another interception to end their hopes. Petras finished 19-of-30 for 211 passing yards with a touchdown and three interceptions.
While Ferentz’s squad fell short on the scoreboard, he was hopeful for the future of Iowa football – particularly for the offensive line.
“I feel like our line has matured as we’ve gone along. We’re not there yet, but the fact they showed up how we wanted to today against a big front. Even though they were missing a guy, they’ve got some big, physical guys and I thought we showed up perfectly today, so they’re improving.”