If you think bowl games are dumb, you won’t get an argument from me. Once upon a time an invitation to a bowl game denoted a special season, a reward for assembling a college football team that was worth a damn. In the decades following their inception, bowls have had their souls siphoned off by corporations looking for marketing opportunities for an increasingly schlocky array of goods or services, while the significance of bowl games have been diluted by content-hungry cable networks desperate for something eyeball-worthy enough to generate ad sales. When all it takes to make a bowl game is bumbling your way to six wins (and sometimes not even that, Rutgers you sly dog) for the opportunity to help a company pimp its shit, all this bowl nonsense seems pretty pointless.
While all of that is true, I frickin’ love bowl games. It isn’t because bowls are some sort of springboard to something special for next year or an opportunity to make some sort of nebulous statement about whatever slights you can drum up. It isn’t because we get to see our favorite players suit up one last time in a weird epilogue for the season either. (Seriously dudes, if you have NFL aspirations at all, or even if you just don’t give a shit and can’t be bothered, sit it out. I won’t judge and trust me, I’ll watch anyway.) The reason I love bowl games is because the stakes for these exhibition friendlies are so incredibly low that I can actually just chill and watch Iowa play, only marginally bothered by how the game might shake out. (What non-lunatics call “perspective.”) So when all the same ol’ Ferentz bullshit reared its nasty head, I just kept sipping my Kentucky Bourbon Stout, unphased by Kirk’s stubborn refusal to make an honest attempt to win this game.
I did almost completely lose my Zen in the first half, though. Iowa’s offense brought the same freak show with them to Orlando, starting with the ball, mucking around for four plays before punting. Kentucky spent their bowl prep time mapping out a great first drive, using a mix of runs and pass on first down, setting up easy conversions on second- or third-and-short, with Will Levis dumping it off to uber-mensch Chris Rodriquez from five yards out for the opening drive touchdown, providing us the horrific experience of watching Iowa’s offense behind the eightball.
After exchanging a couple of punts, Iowa’s offense gave us an amuse-bouche of competence. Petras was on point, going 4-for-5 for 40 yards. The Great Wall of Red Zone remained as insurmountable as ever and Iowa settled for a Shudek field goal. But when your offense is this bad, points is points, I suppose.
After giving up that opening touchdown, Iowa’s defense went full Cujo on the Wildcats, with the defensive line eviscerating Kentucky’s beleaguered offensive line, mauling Will Levis for six sacks and spending nearly the entire game up in his grill. The defense’s lone other blip in the first half came on the following drive. After back-to-back sacks, it was a 3rd-and-26 on their own 43, with Kentucky looking poised to punt after a pending failed conversion. Instead, Wan’Dale Robinson sprinted down the middle of the field like Moses on the run from the Pharoah, parting the Red Sea of Iowa’s Cover 2. Will Levis had all of two seconds to get rid of the ball, flinging a lightning bolt that Robinson hauled in just before Iowa’s two safeties could collapse on him. It was more a great play by the Wildcats than an out-and-out screw-up by Iowa’s defense, and with Kentucky kicking a field goal, the damage was more “meh” than “god damn it.” (Shout out to Mark Stoops for not going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, though. It saved us from the possibility of either a 14-3 deficit or seeing Iowa play offense from their own 3-yard line.)
As much as the first half was a load of mucky muck, the score was only 10-3. If Iowa could just figure out a way to score a touchdo…..shit. Nevermind. Petras had a pass deflected for an interception. At least the defense held Kentucky to another field goal. It was mildly pleasing to see Iowa move the ball to midfield to set-up an end-of-half Hail Mary interception, though, probably Iowa’s best end-of-half drive all season.
If there was one promising development from this game, it was easily the opening of the shit-kicking firm of Williams and Williams, C.B. (Certified Badasses). The first half was okay, but Gavin and Leshon absolutely took over this game in the second half. In a sweltering day in Orlando, they were two meat tenderizers repeatedly knocking the juice out of a football field of sizzling beef, ferociously plowing over would-be tacklers for seemingly seven yards a pop and refusing to go down before the presence of three defenders. I’m not totally convinced by the “Tyler Goodson hesitated too much" crowd, but this game gave some credence to the idea, because Williams and Williams got upfield right quick and it was awesome to see.
It is no revelation that when Iowa runs the ball this well, it opens up a world of possibilities. On their first possession of the second half, we got the Penn State special, with Petras starting with play-action, rolling-out to his right and uncorking a corker of a throw to LaPorta down the left sideline for 34 yards. Petras followed that excellence up with an incomplete pass to a an open Ragaini and three plays later, bungling a snap on 4th-and-1 to end the drive with zero points*
*Petras contends that someone on Kentucky knocked the ball away. I saw zero evidence of this, but if that happened, yeah, that would be a big deal. As it stands, it looks like just a colossal screw-up at an extremely inopportune time.
Despite the drive ending in failure, the Hawkeyes had their swagger back. The defense kept the Wildcats from sniffing the end zone, while Iowa’s offense, holy shit, had back-to-back touchdown drives. On the first drive, on 3rd-and-5 from the Kentucky 20-yardl ine, Brian called up a jet sweep to Arland Bruce Episode IV. The down-and-distance meant Kentucky had no idea what was coming, and Bruce was free to run into the end zone, unbothered by any contact with a defender.
On Iowa’s following drive, we got one of the coolest plays we’ve gotten all year. On 2nd-and-3 from Kentucky’s 36, it looked like another Penn State special, only this time, LaPorta blocked early before creeping out to the left flat. Petras hung out while Iowa’s offensive line hoofed it downfield, before flicking the ball out to LaPorta who had loads of space and and a metric ton of pork out in front of him to block. Some defenders finally caught up with him just before the goal line, but by then it was too late and momentum dictated that LaPorta was careening into the end zone, giving Iowa its first lead of the day.
With a 17-13 lead and 11 minutes to go in the game, Kirk went full-Ferentz, packing up his offense and relying on his defense to bring it home. This is a dubious strategy in the best of times, but is the height of madness when your defense has spent the better part of three hours roasting in the Florida sun. No matter, as despite some nasty runs by Rodriquez, the defense dug deep and held Kentucky on a 4th-and-1 from their 35 after pinballing enough tacklers to bring Rodriquez down short of the marker.
Now some coaches would look at 4-point lead on the scoreboard and the 65 yards between your team and the end zone and see a golden opportunity to perform a Mortal Kombat-fatality on your opponent’s chances of winning the game by scoring a touchdown. Not our Kirk. Kirk looks backwards at his own end zone and sees only tears and black licorice. Two runs got the ball to the Iowa 44-yard line. On 3rd-and-1, Iowa tried to hurry up, itself a great idea, but unfortunately it was coupled with a stretch zone run to the left, and with Kentucky leaning on their muscle memory, no doubt their brains reverted back to all those reps against the moldy bread-and-butter of Iowa’s offense and the run lost a yard. Punt time.
Again, the defense gave up some yards but held on another fourth down stop, this time when Jermari Harris jumped the route for a massive interception on the Iowa 36-yard line. This time, there was only ten yards between Iowa and an almost-certain victory. Again, Iowa tried three runs to zero passes, netting nine yards and setting-up another 4th-and-1 scenario. Objectively, in that spot, going for it is the correct strategy. No other opinions on this are valid, including Kirk’s. Make the first down, a high-percentage play even for Iowa’s offense, and you can run roughly 2:40 seconds off of the 3:30 seconds of game clock, an option that would certainly have “complemented” Iowa’s defense nicely. Fail, and you can still rely on your defense to win it for you. (Also a high-percentage possibility even with Kentucky starting from the Iowa 45.)
Alas, Kirk forever overestimates risk and undervalues reward, opting instead for the lamest play in all of sports, the “maybe they will jump offiside” play which works roughly 1 in 10,000 times. It didn’t work here and Kirk burned a timeout and punted. (With the ball going into the end zone, five yards on a delay of game penalty might have come in handy and another timeout definitely would have helped a game-winning drive.)
Instead, Kentucky got the ball on their own 20-yard line with 3:30 to play. They only needed 1:43. It was almost exclusively the Ghost of Cornhuskers Past Wan’Dale Robinson on the drive, with the real trouble coming with Robinson breaking through a busted coverage downfield for a 52-yard completion to the Iowa 1-yard line. A false start moved Kentucky back five yards, but it didn’t matter, with Rodriguez bouncing off a backfield tackle attempt and bouncing himself outside to the left corner of the end zone for the Wildcat lead.
So now, with zero pass attempts in Iowa’s previous two drives when no one was expecting a pass, Iowa had to pass a lot with everybody expecting pass. It went okay initially, with Iowa moving the ball to the Kentucky 40-yard line, but on a 2nd-and-5, Kentucky got a blitzer through, and Petras acted like a real Ben Lewis, panicking and floating a ball over the middle of the field that a Kentucky defender cradled for the game-winning interception.
So here we are, another season in the books. Like most bowl games, this one didn't change the perception of Iowa’s season and general problems. The Hawkeyes are still who we thought they were: An elite defensive team whose putrid offense has us feeling pretty nauseous about an otherwise nice 10-4 season and very little would change if Iowa had won this game. An overhaul of pretty much every aspect of the offense is desperately needed this offseason. Will it happen? Wait, don’t answer that…
* Spencer Petras. I’m pretty sure he is an absolutely stellar dude. I’m sure he works extremely hard. Unfortunately there are a lot of stellar, hard-working dudes in the world. Like almost all of them, Spencer Petras just isn’t good enough at quarterbacking to start for our favorite football team. Brian Ferentz called a pretty good game today (Note: This does not justify him staying as Iowa’s offensive coordinator. It absolutely does not.) With Iowa running the ball as well as they did, Petras could not have been situated better. And yet not only did he miss wide open dudes, he was actively a detriment to the team with his myriad of mistakes, something Kirk purports to hate. (I would be curious to see Alex Padilla after an offseason where he is The Dude, but I have to imagine he is hightailing it out of here.) That said, I would bet he is the starter next year.
* The defensive line was something else. We’ll see who stays, but with some growth and development, they could be a pretty, pretty nasty unit next year.
* I would be stoked to have Riley Moss back, but Jermari Harris looks very legit back there. He was excellent in coverage and crashing down against the run and screens. (If Jack Campbell also comes back, I honestly don’t expect our defense to regress all that much.)
* If Iowa can consistently run the ball like they did today, they will at least be a hell of a lot more fun to watch next year, even if they finish at 8-4.
* Thanks to anybody who read this silly column this year. It has a been a pleasure. Godspeed and see you next September!