NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops sees no issue with playing Iowa for a second straight year, even if the Music City Bowl is nowhere close to the Citrus Bowl where the teams wrapped up last season.
Of course, his Wildcats pulled off a late comeback for a 20-17 win to cap a 10-3 season.
Iowa freshman running back Kaleb Johnson remembers the loss well, even though he wasn’t on the roster.
“I watched all of it, and it just makes me eager to play even more and win,” said Johnson, who ran for a team-high six touchdowns and led Iowa with 1,114 all-purpose yards.
Iowa (7-5) and Kentucky (7-5) will cap their seasons at Nissan Stadium, home to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Neither team is ranked, and each will be missing some key players.
Kentucky will be without quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez, while defensive back Kaevon Merriweather opted not to join fellow All-American linebacker Jack Campbell in leading Iowa’s defense one last time. All three chose to start preparing for the NFL draft in April.
Campbell never had a doubt about playing his final game at Iowa and coach Kirk Ferentz, who’s one win from matching the late Joe Paterno (10) for most bowl wins among Big Ten coaches.
“When I signed my national letter of intent, I signed to play every single game that I’m healthy for or able to so I’m going to go play,” Campbell said.
This is Iowa’s first trip to the Music City Bowl while Kentucky is making a record sixth appearance. The Wildcats are trying to finish off this season with a fifth straight bowl victory and with an eighth win for the fourth time in five seasons.
With Levis gone, Kentucky isn’t sharing his replacement. Kaiya Sheron is listed on the Wildcats’ updated depth chart as the starter “OR” Destin Wade. Sheron started for an injured Levis in a loss to South Carolina where he was 15 of 27 for 178 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
JuTahn McClain is listed as the starting running back ahead of La’Vell Wright as the backup. McClain played in nine games this season and ranked third with 238 yards rushing. He also had 15 catches for 93 yards and a touchdown.
“Some guys need to step up and they need to play as hard as Chris does, and that’s hard to do,” Stoops said of Rodriguez’s replacements. “He’s a tough, physical guy, and hopefully they’ll step up.”
Three-year starter Spencer Petras won’t play because of an injury. Alex Padilla hit the transfer portal. So Ferentz will be starting a quarterback who didn’t take a single snap this season.
Redshirt freshman Joe Labas is poised to start, backed up by freshman Carson May. Ferentz said it is anyone’s guess who the Hawkeyes’ third quarterback will be.
“This is a really unusual situation, and yeah, the person who suffered the most here is Spencer just because it ended up being an injury that needed surgery,” Ferentz said. “So that part is really hard. It’s hard for him to be out there watching with a sling on and all that.”
Kentucky ranks 11th nationally allowing just 19.1 points a game, and the Wildcats held top-ranked Georgia to 16 last month. They also are 17th in the country in allowing 320.2 total yards.
Campbell heads up an Iowa defense that led the Bowl Subdivision giving up just 4.10 yards per play. The Hawkeyes held opponents to 13 or fewer points in nine games while giving up 200 yards or less in five games.
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