Jan 02, 2022

Kentucky Overtakes Iowa Late in Battle of Citrus Bowl Unbeatens, Wins 20-17

By Andrew Johnson
Florida Citrus Sports

College football fans got a New Year’s treat on Saturday, as an entertaining finish saw Kentucky close out its second Vrbo Citrus Bowl win in four seasons.

Down 17-13 to Iowa in the fourth quarter, Kentucky junior quarterback Will Levis found wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson for a 52-yard pass down to the Iowa 1-yard line.

Running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. finished the 80-yard drive off with a 6-yard touchdown run to take a game-clinching 20-17 lead.

Robinson, the Citrus Bowl’s Most Valuable Player, played a pivotal role in Kentucky’s victory with 10 receptions for 170 yards. Robinson’s high-powered junior season eclipsed the UK single-season receiving yards record with 1,334.

“He’s a really good football player,” Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He was good when we faced him last time, and he is probably better right now and that comes with age. We have a lot of respect for him.”

The game felt charmed from the start, as 50,769 fans filled the entire lower bowl of Camping World Stadium and a rather sizeable part of the upper tier. The sun shone all day on two talented teams who both finished the year with 10 wins despite playing tough schedules.

Just a couple of days ago, the SEC dropped to 1-5 in postseason bowl games. Now, with conference juggernauts Alabama and Georgia winning their Playoff Semifinals games on Friday — and with Arkansas defeating Penn State in Tampa — Kentucky continued the conference’s four-game win streak.

No. 15 Iowa (10-4) recorded six defensive sacks and was able to surge in the second half to take a 17-13 lead after trailing for the majority of the game, but it couldn’t finish the job.

Ferentz named junior quarterback Spencer Petras the starter minutes before the game. Petras struggled to get going early on but finished throwing 19 of 30 pass completions for 211 passing yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. His favorite target, Sam LaPorta, caught seven receptions for 122 yards and one touchdown.

“Spencer, he competed his butt off today,” LaPorta said. “We have worked really hard all week and all of bowl prep. They were a great team, of course. They had some obstacles that we had to work around, and I thought Spencer commanded the offense really well today.”

For No. 22 Kentucky (10-3), Levis connected on 17 of 28 passes for 233 passing yards and one interception. The rushing attack was led by Rodriguez Jr., with 20 attempts for 107 yards and one rushing touchdown.

Kentucky established the run early behind Rodriguez Jr. to jump out to a 7-0 lead after shutting down the Iowa offense on its first possession. Thanks to two third-down conversions, the Wildcats successfully drove down the field to cap off a 13-play, 80-yard drive with a 5-yard pass from Levis to Rodriguez Jr.

Following another Iowa three-and-out, the Wildcats’ second offensive drive was halted after a sack by Hawkeyes defensive lineman Zach Van Valkenburg. The Hawkeye standout continuously pressured Levis throughout the afternoon, recording eight total tackles, two sacks and two-and-a-half tackles for loss.

Iowa’s offense found its groove on its third possession when Petras found tight end Luke Lachey for 15-yards — the longest play of the game for the Hawkeyes up to that point. A false start on 3rd-and-4 near the goal line forced Iowa to settle for a 28-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3 with 11:03 remaining in the second quarter.

On the ensuing drive, Kentucky’s offense featured a mixture of Robinson and Rodriguez. The Wildcats responded with a 21-yard field goal from Matt Ruffolo to take a 10-3 lead with 2:48 remaining in the second quarter.

Kentucky closed out the half by forcing an interception off a tipped pass which was caught by linebacker D’Eryk Jackson that resulted in a 27-yard field goal kick by Ruffolo to take a 13-3 lead with 0:38 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

Iowa’s vaunted defense continued to look solid entering the second half, forcing Kentucky to punt on its first drive. The Hawkeyes then launched a 7-play, 69-yard drive, but were stopped on a crucial 4th-and-1 after Petras fumbled the exchange. It was the third turnover of the game for Iowa.

After a Kentucky three-and-out, Iowa finally found paydirt for the first time. Hawkeyes’ receiver Arland Bruce IV hit the end zone on a 20-yard end-around run to cut the lead 13-10 with 3:21 remaining in the third quarter.

A couple of minutes later, Petras found LaPorta on a 36-yard wheel route that gave Iowa its first lead of the day at 17-13. A defensive battle had opened up into a back-and-forth game, to the delight of the crowd.

But Iowa’s lead was permanently wiped out by Kentucky’s game-winning drive, led by Levis and Robinson, which was capped off by Rodriguez Jr.

Kentucky finished with 10 wins for the second time under Mark Stoops and the fourth time in program history.

“Coach Stoops deserves all the credit in the world for what he’s done with this program,” Levis said.

“This is obviously my first year with the team, and there were a lot of guys before us going back a few years that … really built the foundation for what the program has been able to do right now. So big thanks to them.”

Kentucky has slowly but steadily built a national name under Stoops, and a lot of that remarkable story has been written here in Orlando.

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