The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa football suffers worst-ever bowl loss, falling, 35-0, to Tennessee in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl

The Hawkeyes lost the turnover battle, 3-0, and fell in shutout fashion to a ranked opponent for the third consecutive time this season.
Ayrton Breckenridge
Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava carries the ball during the 2024 Cheez-It Citrus Bowl between No. 17 Iowa and No. 21 Tennessee at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. (Ayrton Breckenridge/The Daily Iowan)

ORLANDO, Fla. –  The No. 17 Iowa football team finished what many considered a miraculous 10-win season with its third straight shutout loss to a ranked opponent, this time falling, 35-0, to No. 21 Tennessee in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium.

“We competed and prepared well, but obviously we weren’t up to the test,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said in his postgame press conference. “Tennessee played an outstanding game, so a lot of credit to our opponent. Currently, it’s the self-inflicted things – the things you can’t do if you want to win football games.” 

These items included two interceptions, a fumble lost, five penalties, and two dropped passes. Producing only two drives penetrating enemy territory and reaching the red zone just once, the Hawkeyes’ suffered their worst-ever loss in a bowl game. Quarterback Deacon Hill produced three costly turnovers while the defense let up 383 total yards – the second most it has let up all season. 

Receiving the opening kickoff, Iowa’s weekslong preparation for the Tennessee defense didn’t show much, as the Hawkeyes went three-and-out on their opening possession. The ensuing punt from Tory Taylor received a Hawkeye bounce, bounding a whopping 62 yards. Less than three minutes into the game, Taylor set the program record for punting yards in a season. 

“Wasn’t a good punt, but it went 63 yards, and looks don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Taylor said with a smile. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s cool to go down in the record book.”

Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, the Volunteers also proved inept on their first drive, gaining just five yards on five plays as they were flagged for consecutive penalties.

After the trade of punts, Iowa appeared to hit its stride. Starting in enemy territory after a shanked punt from Volunteer Jackson Ross, the Hawkeyes drove 43 yards in 10 plays, mixing in a variety of rushers, including first-year Terrell Washington, whose 14-yard carry on third down put Iowa inside the 10-yard line.

After that play, the Hawkeyes were stuffed twice, and on third down, Hill rolled to his right and threw into double coverage. His attempt to receiver Nico Ragaini was snagged in the end zone by Volunteer defensive back Andre Turrentine. 

Ferentz said the drive was a good example of the team “building momentum,” but added that the critical turnover was a reminder of how slim the margin for error has been in recent years for Iowa football. In his words, the play was a microcosm of how Iowa has to “thread the needle” if it wants to find success.

That drive was as close as the Hawkeyes would get to the goal line, as their longest first-half drive since was just 20 yards, with only two of those five possessions eating more than two minutes of clock. One of the most brutal totaled negative 14 yards due to a delay of game penalty, a pass for no gain,  a sack, and a dropped pass from wide receiver Kaleb Brown. 

While the Iowa defense got some needed stops and disrupted Volunteer QB Nico Iamaleava with four sacks, it couldn’t completely contain the 6-foot-6, 202-pounder making his first collegiate start. One drive after Hill’s turnover, Tennessee scored on back-to-back possessions of 73 and 68 yards, respectively. Both ended on Iamaleava’s rushing scores of 19 and three yards.

Hawkeye defensive end Joe Evans, who had a team-high four sacks on Monday, said his squad had some difficulties adjusting to the Volunteers’ up-tempo offense, adding that the Orange and White were “getting a play off every 10-15 seconds.” Playing with a limited number of defenders in the box, coordinator Phil Parker’s group allowed 232 net yards on the ground.

“When you have to deal with two facets, both the running game and the passing game, it’s definitely a lot tougher,” Evans said of Iamaleava. “He’s a very mobile guy, and you were able to see that.”

Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins, whose 16 tackles tied the program’s single-season record, explained how Tennessee’s spread offense prevented the defense from getting multiple players involved in the run game. As for Volunteer running backs Dylan Sampson and Cameron Seldon, who were both filling in for opt-out starters, Higgins called the duo some of the fastest backs he’s seen.

“They came out and they ran exactly what we thought they would run out there, they’re pretty good at it,” Higgins said of coordinator Joey Halzle’s offense. “We came up short a little bit, gave up a couple of long drives … climbing back from 14-0 is a hard task.”

Iamaleava’s second TD dash was aided by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty from Iowa corner Deshaun Lee that put the Volunteers in the red zone. 

To open the second half, the Volunteers gained 66 yards on their first three drives, all resulting in punts. On Iowa’s third possession of the third quarter, the turnover bug struck Hill again, as the quarterback was strip-sacked on third down, giving Tennessee the ball in the red zone. 

Two plays later, Iamaleava scored his third rushing TD of the game, rolling to his left and juking out a defender at the goal line. To start the fourth quarter, bad turned to worse.

After the Black and Gold faithful got a welcoming respite from their misery when “Back in Black” blared through the speakers, such enthusiasm completely dissipated. Hill threw a pick-six to Volunteer linebacker James Pearce Jr., who dashed 52 yards untouched to the end zone. 

With the result clearly decided, Hill was benched in favor of freshman Marco Lainez, who offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said wasn’t going to appear in the game barring injury. In his first play from scrimmage, the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder turned heads with a 10-yard sneak up the middle. 

Kirk Ferentz said Lainez was never going to start the game, as Hill “presented the best chance to win,” but did admit there was some consideration to giving the youngster some reps heading into the contest, adding that the QB had practiced well and improved throughout the season.

“Anyone who can run at any position is a good thing, but again, he’s a young player with a lot of heart,” the head coach said of Lainez. “He’s got a good future, good throwing skills and running skills.”

Hailing from Princeton, New Jersey, Lainez again dazzled with a rush to the left for 16 yards – Iowa’s longest play of the day. After another 12-yard run, he became the Hawkeyes’ leading rusher for the game.

Perhaps Lainez’s best play of the day came on fourth-and-15 when he broke free for another 16-yarder. 

But even with his prowess on the ground, Lainez struggled through the air, completing 1-of-5 passes for a loss of four yards as the Hawkeyes couldn’t convert on fourth down. Tennessee would respond with an eight-play, 78-yard touchdown drive as Iamaleava found receiver McCallan Castles for an 18-yard score: the death knell for Iowa’s margin of defeat in a bowl game.

The last time the Hawkeyes were crushed this badly in the postseason was back in 1994 at the Alamo Bowl: a 37-3 drubbing at the hands of California. 

For Higgins, who said this month that he will return to Iowa City next season, the 2023 campaign was one of resilience, as the defense, which had lost three players to the NFL over the offseason, never took a step back. Yet during his reflection, the senior was more focused on the intangibles, the memories that linger beyond the stats.

“What sports offer in general, it’s bigger,” he explained. “I’m not going to remember 20 years from now what play we called, what third down, or who made the tackle. I’m just going to remember the group of guys, the group of coaches.”

More to Discover
About the Contributors
Matt McGowan
Matt McGowan, Pregame Editor
he/him/his Matt McGowan is The Daily Iowan's Pregame Editor. He is a sophomore double majoring in journalism and mass communications and American studies with a minor in sport studies.  This is his second year with the DI
Ayrton Breckenridge
Ayrton Breckenridge, Managing Visuals Editor
Ayrton Breckenridge is the Managing Visuals Editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and cinema. This is his fourth year working for the DI.