It was widely believed that points would come at a premium in the Music City Bowl. Two of the nation’s top defenses took the field against freshman quarterbacks. Offensive points were, in fact, hard to come by in this one. It was Iowa’s defense that did the scoring against Kentucky in Nashville. At the half, Iowa led the Wildcats 21-0, and 14 of those points came on defense. In what was a field position battle with 18 punts on 27 possessions, the Iowa defense dominated the Music City Bowl with a 21-0 win over Kentucky.
Iowa Defense Dominates Music City Bowl Shuts Out Kentucky
Early Strikes from Iowa
Freshman quarterback Joey Labas took the field for the first time in his career and promptly completed three straight passes. Each of them was for a first down and brought the offense into Kentucky territory early. Iowa ended up turning the ball over on downs, but the field position battle was on. The next five possessions combined for 39 yards between Iowa and Kentucky and ended in punts. Two of Tory Taylor’s three punts in that sequence were pinned inside the seven-yard line giving Iowa a huge field position advantage. It would prove to be the difference in this game early. On Kentucky’s fourth punt of the game, Iowa took over at the Wildcat 42-yard line. Two plays and 54 seconds later, Labas connected with Luke Lachey for the freshman quarterback’s first collegiate touchdown. Iowa took a touchdown lead early in the second quarter.
Eleven seconds later, Kentucky took the field and Phil Parker’s defense struck. On the first play of the possession, true freshman Xavier Nwankpa intercepted Destin Wade’s pass and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown. Nwankpa was on the field for his first defensive start at safety of his young career. The former five-star recruit has been impressive all season on special teams and made huge strides during bowl practice leading up to the Music City Bowl. His interception return for a score gave the Hawkeyes a 14-point lead in the second quarter. The pick-six was the Hawkeyes’ fifth defensive score of the season, second most in the FBS.
Fast-forward to the final two minutes of the second quarter, the Hawkeye defense struck again. This time, Cooper DeJean jumped a route and intercepted Wade for the second time of the day. The Ida Grove, Iowa native took it 14 yards into the end zone for the second defensive score of the day. That made six defensive touchdowns on the season for Iowa, tied for most in the nation this season.
DeJean was injured against Nebraska in November, and his return to the Nashville field was huge. He finished with seven tackles, 42 total punt return yards, two punts downed inside the seven-yard line, and an interception return for six. DeJean finishes the year with three touchdowns, all coming on interception returns. Other than the quarterback position, that’s good for the second-most touchdowns on the team behind only Lachey with four scores. Three total pick-sixes ties Desmond King, Riley Moss, and Tom Knight for career interception returns, and DeJean did it in one season. The sophomore defensive back was largely unrecruited out of high school, receiving only one Power Five offer. It came from Iowa, and he is now arguably the most impactful player in the program.
The nation’s top linebacker Jack Campbell decided to suit up for his final game at Iowa in the Music City Bowl, and the defense maintained its identity. Campbell finished with 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack, and the defense made it impossible for Wade and Kentucky to have any success. Iowa allowed a mere 2.7 yards per play and forced 10 punts.
Sebastian Castro also stepped up at cornerback for the Hawkeyes against Kentucky. He finished with five tackles, two pass breakups, and a sack. The junior from Oak Lawn, Illinois made several critical open-field tackles and was a big part of Iowa’s dominating performance on defense.
The Hawkeyes finish the season allowing just 13.3 points per game. Not including the outlying Ohio State blowout loss, that number drops to 9.9 per game. Year in and year out, the Hawkeye defense has become one of the elite groups in the nation. Campbell will be moving on to the next level as one of the highest-graded linebacker prospects, but the young talent still on this roster will keep Parker’s defense operating at a very high level. The showing from Nwankpa and DeJean against Kentucky is only a preview of the veteran leadership that will come in the next few years in Iowa City on defense.
The run game struggled to find a rhythm against Kentucky’s defensive front. As a team, the offense did not convert a single third down in the first half and finished 0-11 on third down for the game. The offensive line struggled to get a push, and the results on the ground were not great. Only two possessions in the game consisted of more than three plays. On the day, Iowa ran just 48 plays. Ten of their 13 possessions lasted three plays or less.
Despite the struggles on the ground, Labas was consistent in the air in his first start. The 42-yard touchdown drive in the first half was his only passing score of the day. He finished 14 of 24 for 139 yards. Most importantly, he didn’t make any critical mistakes. Labas had zero turnovers and was able to connect with the tight ends all day. Lachey and Sam LaPorta finished with eight receptions for 92 yards. LaPorta will be onto the NFL Draft as one of the nation’s top tight end prospects.
Iowa Defense Dominates Kentucky
Campbell and LaPorta were the notable two Hawkeyes to suit up for their final game in the black and gold in Nashville, and they will go out with a dominating victory over Kentucky. Moss at cornerback also played in his final game for the Hawkeyes, and he’ll likely see an opportunity at the next level.
The biggest takeaway from Iowa’s bowl victory is the opportunity and potential that is coming for the Hawkeyes next season. Several players took major steps forward during bowl practice, and the young players on defense stepped up in the game. Cade McNamara will take over the offense at quarterback next season, almost all of the offense returns, and the defense has a lot of young talent. The Hawkeyes finish the season 8-5 and Kirk Ferentz gets his 10th bowl win at Iowa. Iowa is Music City Bowl Champions as they finish off the rollercoaster 2022 season with a dominating victory over Kentucky.