Dec 31, 2021

Former Champs Collide as Vrbo Citrus Bowl Celebrates 75 years

By Collin Thomas
Florida Citrus Sports

The new year will bring a family reunion of sorts to Camping World Stadium. The Iowa Hawkeyes and the Kentucky Wildcats will meet on Saturday afternoon at the 75th annual Citrus Bowl sponsored by Vrbo, and the football ties run deep.

Resurgent Kentucky (9-3) comes into the game hoping for another 10-win season under eighth-year head coach Mark Stoops. This would be only the third 10-win season for the program since 1950. The last time the Wildcats reached that lofty target was in the 2018 season, capped off here in Orlando with a Citrus Bowl win over Penn State.

For Stoops, there is a strong connection to the Hawkeyes. He played defensive back for Iowa under legendary head coach Hayden Fry. At the time, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz was the offensive line coach. Stoops credits his and his family’s success to their time at the University of Iowa.

“It’s an honor to be back in the Citrus Bowl and to play the Iowa Hawkeyes, obviously a team that is very close to myself and my family,” Stoops said. “I know how tough they are and the way they play, and it will be a great challenge.”

The Hawkeyes (10-3) reached number 2 in the AP poll earlier this season, but back-to-back losses to Purdue and Wisconsin derailed Iowa’s hopes at a playoff appearance. The Hawkeyes claimed a BIG 10 West title, but eventually fell to the Michigan Wolverines in the BIG 10 Championship.

Ferentz is hoping to close out his 22nd season on a high note against a tough Kentucky football team.

“We’ll have our hands full, I’m sure of that,” Ferentz said. “I know our team is excited about getting back to it and having an opportunity to play in a great bowl game.”

The Hawkeyes are ball hawks, coming into the game with a top-15 total defense and leading the country in interceptions with 24.

Hawkeyes’ defensive coordinator Phil Parker said the main goal for Iowa is to play smart football and make fundamental plays.

“(We) are really going to have been to be eye disciplined and … make sure everybody has gap integrity and make sure that we leverage the ball and properly pursue to the ball,” Parker said.

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis said to win this game against the Hawkeyes, it is important to stay focused.

“We need to make sure we go out there and play cleanly,” Levis said. “As long as we do that, I think we should be able to do some good stuff.”

As a transfer from Penn State, Levis has experience playing against the Hawkeyes. He faced a stout Iowa defense in a 41-21 loss in 2020. Levis said Iowa still plays tough defensively and it is important to be disciplined.

“The same coverages that you see in the past with them are the same stuff that you’re going to see this year and what we expect to see as well,” Levis said. “That doesn’t necessarily make it easy at all, because, like I said, they are disciplined and even though you might know what you’re going to get on a certain coverage, it’s a defense that takes a disciplined offense to combat it.”

With an offense that has struggled to find an identity, the Hawkeyes hope to put together a solid game plan to move the chains and score points against the Wildcats.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Iowa is using this matchup to set the tone for next season and beyond.

“What we have really tried to do over the last four weeks is focus on things that we have been successful doing, things that we feel like we can match up against Kentucky and move the ball and change field position and score points when we have those opportunities,” Ferentz said. “I feel like it has been a productive four weeks, but ultimately, we will find out on Saturday somewhere a little bit after kickoff.”

Expect plenty of old-school football, which is a fitting tribute to the Kentucky program under Stoops and the Iowa coaching tree he came from.

“The success we’ve had has a lot to do with the roots of Iowa, with Hayden and Coach Ferentz and the many talented coaches that were there,” Stoops said. “Just nothing but fond memories from the Hawkeye experience.”

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