Exactly 364 days prior to this year’s Music City Bowl, Iowa and Kentucky went down to the final minute in Orlando in the 2022 Citrus Bowl. Kentucky’s game-winning touchdown drive ended the first college football game of the New Year. Now for the second time this calendar year, the Hawkeyes and Wildcats meet again. This time in Nashville for the Music City Bowl. The two programs enter without several key players and backups. Iowa’s quarterback will be a redshirt freshman who has never taken a collegiate snap. Kentucky’s starter is another redshirt freshman with just one career start. To make matters even more interesting, both programs have top ten scoring defenses allowing under 19 points per game.
Hawkeye Opt-Outs and Injury Update
Spencer Petras’ injury against Nebraska in the season finale will hold him out of the Music City Bowl. He had shoulder surgery on his throwing shoulder and is not available on New Year’s Eve. Backup Alex Padilla entered the transfer portal immediately following the regular season, leaving two very young signal callers for Iowa available for Saturday.
The Hawkeyes also lost two wide receivers in Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson to the portal following the season. Backup running back Gavin Williams entered the portal as well. He had nearly 100 yards against Kentucky last January in the Citrus Bowl.
Kaevon Merriweather announced he would opt-out of the Music City Bowl to begin preparation for the NFL Draft. The senior All-American safety had three interceptions and 47 tackles this season. He is projected to be a mid-round selection in the NFL Draft and will compete in the Reese’s Senior Bowl this February. Cooper DeJean was injured in the first quarter of the season finale against Nebraska. He is active for the Music City Bowl, and is back to 100%.
Most of the offense will look the same on Saturday for the Hawkeyes. Sam LaPorta is healthy and will line up one final time at tight end for Iowa. Kaleb Johnson will be in the backfield with a healthy Monte Pottebaum at fullback. At receiver, Nico Ragaini and Deonte Vines will start with Brody Brecht and Alec Wick seeing action as well. The big difference will be a new quarterback, Joey Labas, under center.
The former three star recruit from Ohio has yet to take a snap at the college level. Labas has been on the scout team all season. After the Petras injury and Padilla’s departure, he was vaulted into the starting role. During bowl preparations, Petras has been “like a third coach” according to Labas. He has been talking to the young quarterback on every rep and helping him adjust to his new role.
According to Labas, the playbook is going to be pretty much wide open in this game against Kentucky. They aren’t going to dial anything back for the young quarterback. With many of the same offensive targets still available for the game as they have been all season, it will be a good look at what Labas can do with this offense. Labas showed an ability to make plays on his feet at the high school level. In an interview leading up to this weekend’s game, he mentioned his greatest strength at the position is extending plays. The Kentucky defense will be a grueling first test on the field, but a great opportunity to show what he can do.
Kentucky’s offense will be without starting quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. The two have both opted-out of the Music City Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft. Rodriguez rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown in the Citrus Bowl against Iowa last January. Levis and Rodriguez combined for 27 of Kentucky’s 30 total touchdowns this season.
Replacing Levis at quarterback is Kaiya Sheron who has one collegiate start under his belt. He had 29 attempts this season with 187 yards. Kentucky’s backup running back entered the transfer portal on December first, leaving JuThan McClain the next man in. The junior tailback has 238 yards on the ground this season.
Question Marks on Offense
There are several question marks for both sides entering Saturday’s game in Nashville. Kentucky may be starting six freshmen in their final game of the season. Iowa has also lost a handful to the portal, but most of this season’s starters will see the field on Saturday. For the Hawkeyes, the biggest point of intrigue is how Labas will play in his first career start. Iowa dealt with issues at the quarterback position all year, but Labas did not get to see any action. Questions about how he might perform in this offense will be answered to some degree on Saturday. He’ll have the team’s two leading receivers in LaPorta and Ragaini at his disposal along with Johnson at running back.
At the offensive line, both of these teams have had their struggles. Iowa has allowed 37 sacks this year and Kentucky checks in with 42 allowed. Levis and Petras were pressured 127 and 121 times this season, respectively. For each of the two quarterbacks, 26% of those pressures led to sacks. The two young quarterbacks are stepping into a difficult spot given their team’s protection struggles. However, this could be an area where Iowa can find an advantage in this matchup.
On defense, Iowa’s unanimous first-team All-American linebacker Jack Campbell will make his final start in the black and gold. He didn’t hesitate to confirm his status for the game and will have another opportunity to add to his 118 total tackles this season. Iowa’s defensive front has tallied 30 sacks this season, averaging 2.5 per game. The Wildcats give up 3.5 sacks per game. With a young quarterback and a third-string running back, Iowa has an opportunity to make Kentucky uncomfortable in the backfield. Other than Merriweather’s opt-out, Phil Parker’s defense will look the same as it has all season. That experience stacked up with a young group of skill position players for Kentucky will make points hard to come by.
Iowa and Kentucky Round Two in Nashville
While the repeat matchup leaves much to be desired, this game still draws a fair amount of interest. Depth at quarterback and young players getting into the action on Saturday will make the Music City Bowl one of the more interesting games of Bowl Season. Iowa is averaging 17.9 points per game this year and will be without a veteran at quarterback. Labas will step in for his first-ever football game at the college level. Given the struggles of this season and the inexperience of Labas, it would not be surprising to see Iowa show several looks on offense to give Labas different opportunities to make plays.
Kentucky’s 22.1 points per contest this year is slightly better than Iowa, but still outside the top 100 nationally. They will be missing their two key point-producers and the Hawkeye defense is near full-strength. Points will come at a premium on Saturday in Iowa’s second-straight Bowl Season meeting with Kentucky. With the current points total floating around 31, this game has a chance to break the record for the lowest closing points total in college football history. The current record was set earlier this year when Iowa played Northwestern, closing at 31.5 points.