Music City Magic | Two pick sixes propel Iowa football to bowl victory over Kentucky

The Hawkeyes shut out the Wildcats, 21-0, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville Saturday afternoon.


Grace Smith

Iowa defensive back Xavier Nwankpa runs the ball toward the end zone for a touchdown after an interception during the 2022 TransPerfect Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022. (Grace Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Austin Hanson, Pregame Editor

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Iowa football downed Kentucky, 21-0, in the 2022 Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium Saturday. The Hawkeyes avenged their 20-17 loss to the Wildcats in the 2022 Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

Both Iowa and Kentcuky started backup quarterbacks in Tennessee. The Hawkeyes put redshirt freshman and former third-stringer Joe Labas under center. The Ohioan finished the contest 14-of-24 for 139 yards and a touchdown.

Kentucky started true freshman and Tennessee native Destin Wade. The 6-foot-3, 222-pounder went 16-of-30 for 98 yards and two interceptions. Two of Wade’s interceptions turned into pick sixes. In his first collegiate start, Iowa strong safety Xavier Nwankpa picked Wade off near the Hawkeye 48-yard line and returned the ball 52 yards to the end zone. The second-quarter pick six was Nwankpa’s first career interception.

“I saw the ball in the air, had a chance to go get it, then I just blacked out, and went into the end zone, celebrated with my teammates, which was special, ” Nwankpa said postgame.

Sophomore Cooper DeJean recorded Iowa’s second pick six of the game nearly 10 minutes after Nwankpa registered the first. DeJean jumped in front of a pass thrown by Wade at the Kentucky 14-yard line and made his way into the end zone.

DeJean is the first Hawkeye to record more than three pick sixes in a season. The OABCIG High School grad produced 45 and 30-yard pick sixes against Rutgers on Sept. 24 and Wisconsin on Nov. 12, respectively.

DeJean and Nwankpa’s interceptions, combined with Labas’ first career touchdown, gave Iowa a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. The Hawkeyes never relinquished their lead, allowing the Wildcats’ offense to cross the 50-yard line three times on the day.

“I think we’ve got a lot of talent in our DB room,” said DeJean, who was named Music City Bowl MVP. “I think we played well today. Obviously, there’s always things you can continue to improve on, and you see that stuff that those guys are doing in the games and practice all the time. You know they’ve been making those plays for a while now, and they made the most of it today.”

Senior celebration

Both tight end Sam LaPorta and linebacker Jack Campbell could have opted out of the Music City Bowl to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft. Instead, the pair opted to suit up in the Black and Gold one last time.

LaPorta and Campbell played pivotal roles in Iowa’s win Saturday. Campbell finished the game with 10 tackles and one sack, while LaPorta hauled in five passes for 56 yards.

“You should’ve seen me coming off the field,” LaPorta said. “I was crying like a little baby. So, you pour a lot into this program. So, I said this a couple weeks ago, but the more you put in, the more it gives back to you … Over the last four years, a lot of guys in that locker room have worked their butts off, and I think they see those accomplishments and success and perceive that. Just a really emotional day, glad to go out on top.”

LaPorta and Campbell have not officially declared for the NFL Draft, but they are expected to do so in the days following the Hawkeyes’ postseason game. Iowa starting strong safety Kaevon Merriweather opted out of the Music City Bowl on Dec. 17 to prepare for the NFL Draft.

Cornerback Riley Moss also played his last college game Saturday. The fifth-year senior from Ankeny, Iowa, has been with the Hawkeyes since 2018. He never redshirted during his collegiate career and was allowed to play in 2022 because the NCAA gave all of its 2020-21 athletes an additional year of eligibility.

Moss said he’ll train for the NFL Draft at X3 in Fort Myers, Florida, after the season and play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl on Feb. 4 in Mobile, Alabama.

Like some of his fellow seniors, linebacker Seth Benson may have also played his last game in the Black and Gold. Benson could return to Iowa for another season because of NCAA COVID-19 rules, but he has not announced if he will try to play in college or the NFL next year. The South Dakotan finished the Music City Bowl with seven tackles.

“That’s one of our mottos, ‘Leave the jersey in a better place,'” LaPorta said. “I sure hope I did that. I know the program is in great hands. These young guys are going to spring forward.”

Big Picture

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz earned his 10th career postseason victory Saturday, tying longtime Penn State head coach Joe Paterno for the most bowl victories by a Big Ten head coach. Ferentz is now 10-9 in bowl games with three New Year’s Six appearances.

The 2022 season is the 14th eight-win campaign the Hawkeyes have recorded during Ferentz’s 24-year tenure at Iowa. Ferentz is now 186-115 with 19 winning seasons.

“It just says a lot about our players,” Ferentz said of the Hawkeyes’s postseason achievements. “Like I said, these seniors, you know, feel an obligation to the program to uphold the standard, and that’s what the game is all about. Guys getting that message. It’s pretty simple, but it’s hard when you have 120 guys show up every day with a good attitude and put it on a stage working. Those are habits that will really help them down the road, whatever they do professionally, being a parent, being somebody that’s a member of a team in a company, a school, whatever you are doing. It’s a beautiful part about football.”

Up next

The Hawkeyes will open the 2023 season against Utah State at Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 2. Michigan transfer quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All may make their first appearances as Hawkeyes in that game.

Before their 2023 season-opener, the Hawkeyes will go through spring and summer practice sessions. Iowa has not yet released an official offseason schedule.