Citrus Bowl turns sour for No. 15 Iowa in 20-17 loss to No. 22 Kentucky

The Hawkeyes took a four-point fourth quarter lead after trailing by double-digits at halftime, but the Wildcats scored a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes to clinch the New Year’s Day game.


Grace Smith

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis eats a whole orange while holding the Citrus Bowl Trophy after winning the the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl between No. 15 Iowa and No. 22 Kentucky at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 20-17. During a press conference earlier in the week, head coach Mark Stoops was asked about Levis eating a banana with the peel.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Iowa football team’s new year isn’t off to a very pleasant start.

No. 22 Kentucky went 80 yards in eight plays on a drive that ended with a game-winning touchdown with one minute and 48 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras threw his third interception of the day on the ensuing Hawkeye drive — clinching a 20-17 Wildcat victory.

Iowa ends the season 10-4 overall. The program’s three-game winning streak in bowl games has been snapped. The Hawkeyes have never won four straight bowl games.

“It is a big swing of emotions,” said Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta, who finished with seven catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. “It’s really tough, especially when you feel like you’re going to come out on top … The emotions are really high and then low and somewhere in between. You try to stay level-headed as best as you can. Yeah, it is just a big swing of emotions.”

Iowa trailed by 10 points at halftime, but scored the first 14 points of the second half. A 36-yard touchdown to LaPorta on a tight end screen with 10:54 remaining pushed the Hawkeyes on top for the first time on Saturday. After Iowa punted on a fourth-and-1 near midfield with 3:31 left in the game, Kentucky only needed one minute and 43 seconds to take the lead back.

A 52-yard completion from quarterback Will Levis to wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson set up Chris Rodriguez’s game-winning six-yard rushing score. Rodriguez broke free from Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg’s grasp in the backfield before making his way into the end zone for the touchdown.

Robinson, who formerly played at Nebraska, caught 10 passes for 170 yards against Iowa and was named the Citrus Bowl MVP.

“He is just a really explosive, dynamic football player,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said of Robinson. “He’s tough to keep up with.”

During a two-minute drill after Kentucky took the lead, Petras led the Hawkeyes into Wildcat territory before making what he now considers to be an ill-advised play call.

Petras, who calls the plays when Iowa is going with tempo, went with a smash concept on the play where he threw the game-sealing interception. Feeling the heat from a Kentucky pass rusher off the edge, Petras delivered a high pass that was intended to be a check down throw to the running back, but instead went into the hands of Kentucky’s DeAndre Square.

“We were basically in field goal range at that point in a three-point game,” said Petras, who Ferentz said was named the starter for the Citrus Bowl earlier this week. “That was the wrong call on my part. I probably should have gone with a quick pass at that point when the goal was just to move the chains and get us into better field position. They took away the play to the field. I was trying to dump it down to the back to get five or so yards. A guy came off the edge and disrupted me a little bit. I can’t let it go high like that. Bad play call on my part.

“It sucks for the seniors that this is their last games as Hawks.”

Turning Point

One drive after LaPorta’s go-ahead touchdown that put Iowa up 16-13, Kentucky turned the ball over on downs, giving the football back to Iowa near midfield. The next Wildcat drive ended with Iowa defensive back Jermari Harris picking off Levis with 3:59 left in the game.

It was Iowa’s 25th interception this season, extending the program record.

On the next offensive drive after Harris got the Hawkeyes the ball back, running back Gavin Williams was tackled for no gain on a third down play and Iowa faced a fourth-and-1 at its own 45-yard line. After initially sending the offense out to try and draw Kentucky offsides, Ferentz opted to punt with 3:31 remaining. Iowa punter Tory Taylor’s punt rolled into the end zone for a touchback. Kentucky then methodically went down the field on its game-winning drive after getting the ball back. Had Iowa picked up the first down on the fourth down lay, the Hawkeyes could have practically run the clock out. The Wildcats had no timeouts remaining. Ferentz said he did not go for it on fourth down because he trusted his defense to make a stop.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras walks off the field after the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl between No. 15 Iowa and No. 22 Kentucky at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 20-17. Petras through as interception at the end of the game which gave Kentucky possession of the ball. (Grace Smith)

“Pretty simple for me,” Ferentz said. “Felt like I liked our odds. Perfect world, you like to get the ball inside the 20 [on the punt], but even with the ball, they had 80 yards. I liked our odds, and we played those odds. Retrospect, a lot of things you do it over, but I felt comfortable with where we’re at. Obviously, we would rather have converted on third down.”

Ferentz said the decision to punt had nothing to do with All-American and Rimington Award-winning center Tyler Linderbaum not being on the field. After the third-down play prior to the punt, Linderbaum was down on the grass receiving medical attention. The projected first-round pick suffered an apparent foot injury and went to the locker room, but returned to the field for Iowa’s final drive of the game.

Petras, who finished with 211 passing yards, a touchdown, plus the three picks, said Iowa being stuffed on a quarterback sneak earlier in the game may have played a role in Iowa punting.

“The nose tackle hit Linderbaum before the ball was snapped, but it didn’t get called,” Petras said of a failed QB sneak in the third quarter. “Pretty blatant. The exchange was bad because he’s getting hit before snapping the ball, which is a penalty that we didn’t get.”

Big Picture

Iowa’s season was one full of momentum swings.

The Hawkeyes started the season 6-0 and reached as high as No. 2 in the country in the Associated Press poll. Then, Iowa dropped two games in a row and lost its control of the Big Ten West. Ferentz’s team responded, however, and won its final four games of the regular season. With a little help from Minnesota, who beat Wisconsin in the final week, Iowa won the division for the first time since 2015.

But Iowa’s comeback Black Friday win over Nebraska turned out to be the final victory for the Hawkeyes in the 2021 campaign. Iowa lost to Michigan, 42-3, in the Big Ten Championship Game before dropping the Citrus Bowl to fall to 10-4.

Iowa’s streak of 15 straight wins has been snapped after losing its first-ever meeting with Kentucky. A win would have marked the fourth bowl game victory in a row for the Hawkeyes.

Ferentz would have tied former Penn State coach Joe Paterno for the most bowl wins by a Big Ten head coach (10) with a win on Saturday. Instead, Ferentz remains tied for second with former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez.

Iowa is now 9-9 in 18 bowl games under Ferentz.

Kentucky, led by former Iowa player and graduate assistant Mark Stoops, improves to 10-3 this season and has now won four straight bowl games for the first time in program history.

Iowa offense without Goodson, Johnson

The Hawkeyes were without their top running back and wide receiver against the Wildcats.

Tyler Goodson, Iowa’s leading rusher the last three seasons, announced in December that he was opting out of the Citrus Bowl to focus on preparing for the 2022 NFL Draft. Keagan Johnson, a freshman who has worked his way up to the top spot on Iowa’s wide receiver depth chart, was a more unexpected absence.

“Trainers got a call about 3:30 in the morning, and I have not heard a report about what it is [that kept Johnson out],” Ferentz said. “Could be kidney stones. Might be an appendix, but he had a tough early morning, if you will, and as far as I know, he is doing fine, but have not heard a final diagnosis. Such a tremendous young guy. Just unfortunate he couldn’t be here for his first Bowl.”

Iowa wide receiver Arland Bruce IV runs after a catch during the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl between No. 15 Iowa and No. 22 Kentucky at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 20-17. (Jerod Ringwald)

Johnson caught 18 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns in his freshman season and was a starter out wide for the Hawkeyes by the end of the year. Iowa was already down at receiver after senior Tyrone Tracy Jr. transferred to Purdue after Iowa’s loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Without Goodson and Johnson, Iowa turned to other players.

Redshirt freshmen Gavin Williams (98 rushing yards) and Leshon Williams (42) led an Iowa rushing attack that averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

Out wide, true freshman Arland Bruce IV led all of Iowa’s wide receivers with four catches for 24 yards and contributed Iowa’s first touchdown of the day on a 20-yard run.

Defensive line came to play

Kentucky’s offensive line was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award, which goes to the best front unit in college football. But that didn’t stop Iowa’s defensive line from controlling the line of scrimmage.

The Hawkeyes tallied nine tackles for loss and six sacks on Saturday. VanValkenburg led the way with 2.5 sacks.

“Having three weeks of prep helps, being able to watch your opponent,” VanValkenburg said of the pass rush’s success. “Just a lot of guys playing hard out there. It was hot, we had a whole week in Orlando here and there were a lot of opportunities to be distracted, but I thought everyone was really focused.”

Campbell didn’t finish with a sack or a tackle for loss, but he did register a game-leading 14 tackles, giving him 143 tackles this season, the most for an Iowa player in a season since Pat Angerer in 2009.

Up Next

That concludes Iowa’s 2021 football season. The Hawkeyes will be back on the field on Sept. 4 for the 2022 season-opener against South Dakota State at Kinnick Stadium.