By RossWB on January 1, 2022 at 9:19 am
go hawks go
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

WHO: #22 Kentucky Wildcats (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)
WHEN: 12:00 PM CT (Saturday, January 1)
WHERE: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, FL)
TV: ABC (Dave Pasch, Dusty Dvoracek, Tom Luginbill)
RADIO: Hawkeye Radio Network (TuneIn, or local listings) | 
TWITTER: @IowaFBLive | @IowaAwesome | @IowaOnBTN
WEATHER: n/a (it's in a dome, yo) clear skies, temperatures in the 80s
LINE: Kentucky -3.0 (TOTAL: 44.0)

NOTE: Don't forget to follow all the action during the game and chat with your fellow Iowa fans in the Go Iowa Awesome discord! (More info here.)

Roughly speaking, this game between Iowa and Kentucky presents as strength vs strength (Iowa's defense vs Kentucky's offense) and weakness vs weakness (Iowa's offense vs Kentucky's defense). That isn't strictly fair -- Kentucky's defense isn't at all bad, unlike Iowa's offense -- but their offense does look like their stronger unit this season. So will game this come down to which strength is stronger or which weakness is weakest? For Iowa's sake, we might want to hope it's the strength because the best unit in the game definitely appears to be Iowa's defense. Of course, the Iowa offense also looks like by far the weakest unit in the game... will the game be decided on how much they're able to cobble together today? Maybe!

Kentucky has given up 22 points per game this season, but in eight of 12 games this year they've held their opponents under 24 points and to 17 or fewer points in five of those eight games. If teams can get to the red zone, though, the Wildcat defense has been pretty forgiving -- they've allowed opponents to score in the red zone almost 92% of the time and they've given up touchdowns on almost 69% of those scoring drives, both of which rank near the bottom in the nation. (That could be another weakness vs weakness matchup: Iowa's very stoppable red zone offense against Kentucky's very movable red zone defense.) But they've also been very good at limiting red zone opportunities, allowing just 35 trips inside their own 20 this year (17th best, nationally). The Iowa offense has made 44 trips inside the red zone this year, which ranks 81st this year. So red zone appearances could be at a premium for Iowa in this game, which will put pressure on them to maximize their opportunities when they do arise. That obviously hasn't been a strength for Iowa this season, given their 73% scoring rate in the red zone (121st) and their 41% TD rate in the red zone (128th). 

One piece of good news for Iowa's offense? Kentucky defensive end Josh Paschal, who was 2nd in the SEC in tackles for loss this season (15.5), is "unlikely to play" in this game, per comments from Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops yesterday. Given the Iowa offensive line's struggles against pass rushers this season, that absence would be welcome. That said, OLB JJ Weaver has a team-high 6 sacks this year (and 10 TFL), so there will still be some dangerous players near the line of scrimmage for the Wildcats in this game. 

On offense, Kentucky ranked 42nd in the nation in total offense (430 ypg) and 16th in yards per play (6.6 ypp). They had a balanced attack as well, passing for 224 ypg and running for 206 ypg. The leader of Kentucky's offense is a familiar face to Iowa fans -- QB Will Levis played at Penn State before transferring to Kentucky, where his game has flourished. Levis was solid as a passer, throwing for 2579 yards (on 67% completion rate) and 23 touchdowns, though he did throw 12 interceptions. But he's also a true dual threat as well, very capable of hurting teams in the running game as well; he was 3rd on the team in rushing yards (387 yards, 4.2 ypc), though he also had a team-high 9 rushing touchdowns. To limit his damage, Iowa will need to contain him in the running game and try to force him into some mistakes, which he's capable of doing; he played extensively in Iowa's 2020 win over Penn State and fumbled the ball three times (losing two) and, as noted, he's also thrown 12 interceptions this year already. Hopefully Iowa's ball-hawking secondary can force a few more giveaways from Levis. Levis' favorite target is another familiar face to Iowa fans -- former Nebraska RB/WR Wan'Dale Robinson, who had a staggering 94 receptions for 1178 yards and 7 TD this season. He had at least eight receptions in seven games this year, went over 100 yards receiving five times this season, and twice had 10 pr more receptions in a game. Levis is likely to go to him early and often, so how well Iowa manages to contain him will be a key battle to watch. Let's hope Kentucky hasn't watched any Purdue game film in bowl prep to see examples of how one receiver can break the Iowa defense. 

Levis is a weapon in the Kentucky running game, but not the main option -- that would be Chris Rodriguez, who ran for 1272 yards and 8 TD on 205 carries (6.2 ypc). Kavoisey Smoke was also an effective option at RB for Kentucky, picking up 416 yards and 4 TD on 81 carries (5.1 ypc). Iowa's ability to slow down the Kentucky running game, behind a very solid offensive line, will be one of the bigger battles in this game. Iowa's run defense has been good overall this year (114 ypg, 13th nationally), but they've been breached at times this year -- both Wisconsin and Minnesota ran for 170-180 yards on Iowa, albeit on around 50 carries each, while Michigan absolutely gashed Iowa to shreds in the Big Ten Championship Game (211 yards and 4 TD on 34 carries, 6.2 ypc). 

It's unlikely that the Iowa offense will look as bad it did in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan -- how could it? -- but it also seems highly unlikely that a month off will have reduced in any sort of extreme makeover to turn into a particularly competent (let alone good) unit at this point in the season. The component parts are still the same (worse actually, given Tyler Goodson's decision to opt out and begin preparing for the NFL Draft) and the philosophies and playcallers are unchanged. We'll still Iowa's offense to try and scrape together something, particualrly on the (likely) rare forays they make into the red zone, but ultimately if Iowa is going to win this game, it feels like it's going to hinge on what the defense and special teams units are able to do.

Can the defense do its thing and force more turnovers, either scoring themselves or setting up the offense in excellent scoring position? Can the special teams flip field position when called upon and generate good field position for Iowa when through booming punts or good returns? Those units will -- again -- need to pick up the slack here because it's hard to see the offense suddenly being able to carry much of the load. At least offensively, Iowa largely smoke-and-mirrored their way to 10 wins this season; time to see if they can do it again for one more win. 

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