Football games are accumulations of dozens of plays; one single play almost never is the sole deciding factor in a game's outcome. But some plays definitely loom larger than others. Fourth and less than a yard, 3:38 to play, ball on the Iowa 45-yard line... do you punt and play defense or go for it and try to ice the game?
Iowa punted, with Tory Taylor's 55-yard punt rolling into the end zone and giving Kentucky starting field position at their own 20-yard line. Eight plays and 80 yards later -- most of which came on 52-yard catch-and-run by Wan'Dale Robinson -- Kentucky had a 20-17 lead and Iowa would need a game-winning two-minute drive from Spencer Petras and the Iowa offense to pick up their second-ever Citrus Bowl win. They did not get that win; instead Petras threw an interception to end the game six plays into Iowa's drive.
But back to that fourth down decision. Probability will tell you to go for the first down there; your odds of doing so are pretty high and successfully converting the first down dramatically increases your likelihood of winning the game. That said, no one was the least bit surprised to see Kirk Ferentz opt to punt the ball there and put the onus on his defense to win the game. That's been his M.O. for years, obviously, and on their previous five drives in the second half, the Kentucky offense had zero scored zero points and amassed 136 yards on 32 plays, so the defense had been playing well. Iowa had also tried and failed to convert a fourth-and-short earlier in the game on a botched snap between Tyler Linderbaum and Spencer Petras; Linderbaum also wasn't even in the game on this play, having briefly left the game with a lower leg injury earlier in the fourth quarter.
So I can see why Ferentz opted to make the decision he did... but I still think going for it would have been a better decision. Again, getting the first down there would have significantly increased Iowa's odds of winning the game (Kentucky had no more timeouts to stop Iowa from burning clock). And even if you fail to convert the fourth down and Kentucky goes down and scores to take the lead (which they ended up doing anyway), Iowa probably gets the ball with more time to try for their own scoring drive.
It was a game that featured some statistical oddities -- Iowa lost despite outgaining Kentucky (384 yards to 354) and despite averaging over 6.0 yards per play (6.4 ypp). The last time Iowa lost a game despite outgaining the opposition and averaging over 6.0 yards per play? Last year against Purdue. Iowa also lost despite an impressive running performance in the game -- probably their best of the season, especially given the competition. Iowa totaled 173 yards on the ground and averaged 5.8 yards per carry, among their season highs in either category. The last time Iowa ran the ball that well in a loss? That same 2020 Purude game.
In that game Iowa snatched defeat from the jaws of victory thanks to some extremely costly turnovers. Today Iowa also lost the turnover battle, giving the ball away three times (all interceptions) and taking it away just once (Jermari Harris' fourth quarter interception). One of those interceptions didn't really matter -- Petras threw a pick on a Hail Mary pass into the end zone at the end of the first half. But the first interception came deep in Iowa's own territory (their own 31-yard line) and only stout play by Iowa's defense on the ensuing drive limited the damage to three points. And the third and final interception was the game-ender on the final drive. Iowa also had a turnover on downs early in the third quarter, that aforementioned botched snap between Linderbaum and Petras that led to a failed fourth down conversion when Iowa could have instead tried a chip shot field goal. In hindsight, those three points would have come in very handy. (That said, the Iowa defense also forced an immediate three-and-out after that turnover on downs and Iowa got the ball near midfield on the ensuing punt, which led to their first touchdown drive of the game.)
Petras finished the game 19/30 for 211 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions, but I'm not sure that stat line really tells the most accurate story of his performance. We already discussed the three interceptions, but the 11 incomplete passes included several absolute howlers, including a pair of absolute whiffs on wide open receivers down field. Those are passes that Petras simply has to make; he wasn't even close on them. (He did have a few nice passes on the day, including a long hook-up with Sam LaPorta, but those plays felt more like the exception than the rule.) He also displayed some of the panicky pocket presence and rushed decision-making that we've seen often from him over the past two seasons. The Iowa offense has problems beyond Petras, to be sure, but he certainly hasn't looked capable of elevating the offense with his play, either.
As noted earlier, the running game performed very well today, despite the absence of leading rusher Tyler Goodson. Gavin Williams ran the ball 16 times for 98 yards (6.1 ypc) and Leshon Williams added 42 yards on 10 carries (4.2 ypc); Leshon also showed a nice mean streak and physicality on several of his runs. And one of Iowa's best offensive plays of the game was a run, Arland Bruce's 20-yard end-around for a touchdown in the third quarter. It was gratifying to see Iowa actually run the ball effectively again, though frustrating to see them find a way to lose anyway.
The Iowa defense was again strong overall, although the 80-yard drive (featuring that 52-yard catch-and-run by Robinson) was a definite back-breaker. But prior to that they had held Kentucky to 277 yards of offense and 4.3 yards per play in the game; those are certainly winning numbers. The pass rush did an excellent job; they sacked Levis six times (led by Zach VanValkenburg's two sacks) and delivered some absolutely punishing hits on the QB. It was stunning that he never fumbled the ball in the game; kudos to Levis for the toughness he displayed all game. Wan'Dale Robinson did absolutely kill Iowa, though; the Nebraska transfer finished with 10 receptions for 170 yards and was a holy terror whenever he touched the ball.
The defense will wish they had gotten a few more stops and/or forced a few more turnovers and that's understandable. This wasn't their finest performance of the season, but they still played well enough to give Iowa an opportunity to win. An underperforming offense once again short-circuited Iowa's ability to actually secure that win, though.
Iowa will finish the season with an offense that will rank as their worst in the Ferentz Era in many metrics. They're bottom 10 in the nation in total offense and yards per play. Their passing game was anemic all season long (109th nationally) and the running game was scarcely any better (111th nationally). They averaged 23.4 ppg (100th nationally) and that was with multiple defensive and special teams touchdowns. Iowa was held under 20 points five times this season (they went 1-4 in those games) and scored over 30 points just four times. There's no way to sugarcoat it: Iowa's offense was massively, outrageously broken this season, even by the low standards of the Iowa offense during the Kirk Ferentz Era. Every part of the offense should be scrutinized this offseason -- the philosophy, the play design, the playcalling, and the personnel. Running this shitshow back next year with only minimal changes (if at all) simply can't be the answer in 2022. It's a new year, but we saw the same old Iowa offense today and it lead to a predictably frustrating result.