Citrus Bowl scouting notebook | No. 15 Iowa vs. No. 22 Kentucky

The Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day will test the toughness of Iowa’s defensive front.


Grace Smith

Iowa defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg hoists the Heroes Trophy after a football game between No. 16 Iowa and Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers 28-21. The Cornhuskers have yet to beat the Hawkeyes since 2014.

Chris Werner, Sports Reporter

Nicknamed the “Big Blue Wall,” Kentucky’s offensive line is one of the best fronts in the nation. The group is one of four finalists for the Joe Moore Award — given to the most outstanding offensive line unit in college football. This season marks the fourth consecutive year the group has been a finalist for the honor.

RELATED: Iowa football team to play Kentucky in Citrus Bowl

Behind the talented line, junior running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. ranks second in the SEC and 12th nationally with 106 rushing yards per game. He has totaled 1,272 yards and tied a school record with eight 100-yard rushing games this season.

The O-line has the Wildcats on pace to average at least 200 yards per game passing and rushing for the first time in school history.

The Wildcats are averaging 5.51 yards per carry — good for fourth in the country.

Experience has been the biggest key to the success of Kentucky’s front as the five players have 119 combined starts. Senior right tackle Darian Kinnard has started 38 consecutive games, while fifth-year senior Luke Fortner has started 35 straight games, including every game this season at center.

Kinnard won the Jacobs Blocking award, given to the SEC’s top blocker, and allowed only one sack all season. Fortner was named to the All-SEC first team by the coaches and second team by Pro Football Focus. He too only allowed one sack this year.

Getting to know Kentucky

The Daily Iowan interviewed The Kentucky Kernel’s Head Sports Editor Hunter Shelton to learn more about the Wildcats.

The Daily Iowan: I’ll start with the offensive line. I know they’re up for the Joe Moore award. What’s kind of been clicking up front there?

Hunter Shelton: Darian Kinnard and Luke Fortner are NFL talents, and they really kind of just carry the load. And, there was a lot of talk about it coming in, they got Dare Rosenthal, who transferred in from LSU and I don’t think he’s maybe been as big of a factor that Stoops and company thought he was going to be. But I think it’s just a lot of, you know, they just click with each other. They’ve been doing this with each other for quite some time now. And then with Chris Rodriguez in the backfield. He’s, you know, he’s a pretty shifty back. He’s a guy who doesn’t go down a lot on  the first tackle. So I just think really, it’s just been experience. And over time, they’ve just really kind of grown together and you know, they’re, frankly, they’re just really good.

DI: And then going over to the quarterback situation, I know Will Levis transferred in from Penn State. He was a Nittany Lion last year, played against Iowa, didn’t have that much success when he played against the Hawkeyes. What have you seen from him under center for U.K. this year?

Shelton: He’s had some inconsistencies at times, but, you know, covering Kentucky, having a quarterback like Will Levis, who can throw the ball deep and he’s a really talented runner. For the most part he makes some smart decisions. He’s had a couple bad interceptions this year, but just compared to some of the quarterbacks that Kentucky football has had the past couple of decades, It’s pretty nice. And I would imagine most people who support Kentucky or who cover Kentucky would agree with that. You know, he’s a team captain, he’s a leader, he’s a charismatic guy, obviously like you see all like the social media stuff that he does. He’s quite the character. He’s got the full supportive Big Blue Nation behind him. And you know, he is really good at his passing at times. He’s overthrown a few. I feel like he’s kind of had like a laser focus on finding Wan’Dale Robinson, who is Kentucky’s 1A receiver by a mile. So, you know, there’s been some inconsistencies at times, but you could say that about anyone on Kentucky. But I think, you know, assuming Will comes back for another season next year, I think, you know, he’ll really take that next step and kind of show that, you know, maybe he could even sneak into the NFL Draft talk, you know, in the later rounds.

DI: And then, just looking at the stats here, 29 sacks over 12 games, That’s a little more than more than two a game. Is the defensive line probably the strong suit of this defense or what do the Wildcats kind of look like on the defensive side of the ball?

Shelton: Telling me that, you know, that is a decent stat. I wouldn’t say that their pass rush is maybe their main thing that they go by. I just, I think they, at least up until the latter part of the season, they really weren’t giving up a lot of big plays. The Tennessee game was kind of an outlier because that was big play after big play in that game. And I think the emotions were running high there. But I think their ability to, you know, kind of limit those big chunk plays is the first thing that I would point towards. And you know, their red zone defense is usually pretty stout. I think they make the right tackles when they need to. Their open-field tackling has been not great this season and that’s really something that we haven’t seen improve a whole lot. But, you know, they do have a decent pass rush as well. I mean, Josh Paschal, J.J. Weaver, those guys, they’re, again, NFL caliber players. So, you know, they’re really able to make an impact. That linebacker core is really special for sure.

DI: You mentioned the Tennessee game, I  think that was the tail-end of the kind of middle-of-the-season three-game losing streak. What’s kind of changed since that skid that’s allowed the Wildcats to finish the regular season with three wins in a row?

Shelton: I will say the quality of opponent is obvious. Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and Louisville. All pretty down programs at the moment. But you know, Kentucky is now to the point where, you know, a few years ago, a two, three game losing streak is like an absolute season-ruiner, they probably lose the last couple games of the season too. You know, you drop the Governor’s Cup to Louisville. But Mark Stoops has really kind of taken that next step. He’s turned the program into where it’s, you know, it’s a little more of a culture now. Like he’s got these guys bought in to what it is that he’s trying to do in Lexington and they really responded well. You know, the three-game losing streak like, you lose to Georgia in Athens, that’s what you’re expecting. You know, they had a really disappointing performance in Starkville against Mississippi State. You know, that’s a game they felt like they could have won, but they just kind of got beat from the jump there. And then the Tennessee game, you know, there’s so many things you could point to that could have gone differently there for them to win that one. So, those are some tough losses especially when they’re back-to-back-to-back like that, but I think Stoops has really just got these guys bought in and you know, they responded well as a team and you know, they took care of business when they needed to.

DI: I will ask you now for a score prediction.

Shelton: O.K., I could see this going one of two ways. I could see this being like a pretty, you know, staunch, low-scoring game. I could also see quite a few touchdowns. I think I’ll fall somewhere in the middle. Kentucky won their last Citrus bowl game against Penn State. I think they can go two-for-two. I don’t know, you know, how ready Iowa’s going to be following that Big Ten Championship loss. So I will say Kentucky 27, Iowa 17.

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