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Kentucky falls to Iowa in Music City Bowl: 4 things to know and postgame banter

Looking Ahead: Liam Coen and Devin Leary provide optimism for new-look offense in 2023.

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Iowa at Kentucky Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The streak is over for Coach Mark Stoops as the Iowa Hawkeyes snapped Kentucky’s four-game winning streak in the postseason, avenging last year’s Bowl Game loss with a 21-0 win over the Wildcats on Saturday in the Transperfect Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

Making its fifth appearance in the Music City Bowl, the Wildcats needed a repeat win over Iowa this season to extend its four-game Bowl Game winning streak (2018-2021) and improve on a disappointing 7-5 record. However, the Kentucky offense never got on the board as the Wildcats finished 2022 among the most anemic offensive units in all of college football, finishing last in the SEC in total offense.

Playing without offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello (dismissed) and its top two offensive players - Will Levis and Chris Rodriguez (opt-outs for NFL Draft) - the Wildcats turned to true freshman quarterback Destin Wade who made his first career start. Unfortunately, the Iowa defense was just too good as Kentucky never threatened to score in a one-sided affair as the Wildcats set a new Music City Bowl record with 10 punts in the loss.

Iowa opened the scoring on a 15-yard pass from Joe Labas to Luke Lachey to give the Hawkeyes an early lead before going up 21-0 at the half thanks to a pair of pick six plays that exposed Wade as a first-time signal caller. Neither team could find the end zone in the second half in a classic defensive battle to close the season.

Here are four things to know from a dismal offensive performance in Nashville.

Battle of the backup quarterbacks

Wade, a four-star recruit from the Nashville area, had a rough first career start as the 6-foot-3 quarterback threw a pair of pick six passes to put things out of reach early for the Wildcats. Wade got off to a solid start, completing short passes and moving the chains early, but the Iowa defense was just too good in getting pressure up front.

Playing against an Iowa defense that’s one of the best in the country, Wade was 9-for-16 for 48 yards and two interceptions in the first half. He also ran for 19 yards on 11 carries. The good news is that Kentucky did take a few deep shots down field with Wade under center which provides a glimmer of hope as freshman receivers Barion Brown and Dane Key need to be more involved in the offense next season.

Wade was pulled in the fourth quarter for another UK backup as Deuce Hogan, an Iowa transfer, took snaps over the final six minutes.

Iowa’s Joe Labas, a redshirt freshman, also got his first career start after starting quarterback Spencer Petras suffered a shoulder injury and backup Alex Padilla went into the transfer portal. Labas was 7-for-10 for 83 yards and a touchdown in the opening half.

Iowa shines in special teams play

Iowa’s Cooper DeJean may have the best player on the field on Saturday as the multidimensional sophomore downed two punts inside the five-yard line, returned a punt for 40 yards, and scored on an interception. Iowa punter Tory Taylor, who was named the nation’s best punter for the 2022 season, also lived up to the hype as he pinned Kentucky deep on multiple occasions to make things tough for the UK offense.

A tale of two tight end groups

Heading into the season, Scangarello raved about the Kentucky tight end group with visions of a pro-style passing game that would light up the scoreboard. Due to an inexperienced offensive line and the often-injured Will Levis, that plan never came to fruition as the Wildcats struggled all year offensively.

On Saturday, it was the Iowa tight ends that stole the show as Sam LaPorta broke numerous tackles on a first-quarter pass play that resulted in a 27-yard play to get Iowa into the Red Zone. On the next play, Labas found another tight end target as he connected with Luke Lachey on a 15-yard touchdown.

The Kentucky tight end room has slowly fallen apart as Keaton Upshaw has already entered the transfer portal and Brenden Bates and Josh Kattus both missed the Bowl Game with injuries.

Starting over in 2023

Despite a disappointing season, Kentucky fans can look forward to a clean slate on the offensive side of the ball next season as Liam Coen is expected to return to his old offensive coordinator post after a failed season with the defending Super Bowl champion LA Rams, who will miss the playoffs this season. Coen will have two new playmakers from the transfer portal to build around in new incoming quarterback Devin Leary (N.C. State) and running back Ray Davis (Vanderbilt) to go with a solid group of receivers.

Leary was one of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the transfer portal after throwing for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns for N.C. State in 2021. He threw for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns this season through six games before missing the remainder of the year with a season-ending pectoral injury. Davis rushed for 1,042 yards this season and ran for 129 yards and a touchdown in the Vanderbilt’s win this year in Lexington.

A 7-6 record was certainly not on the minds of Big Blue Nation to begin the year. However, a clean slate in 2023 is expected to bring a new offensive philosophy, an improved O-Line, and a healthy new quarterback in Leary to get the Wildcats back in the hunt.

Making the Coen hire official will be a great start to the New Year as Spring Practice will be here soon. In the meantime, keep your eye on the transfer portal as the Wildcats still have some big holes to fill next season.

Let us know what you think about the 2022 season in the comments below and on our social media pages. Go Cats!