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3 keys, prediction for Iowa football in Music City Bowl
Offensive line coming off crucial developmental opportunity
NASHVILLE — Kirk Ferentz has the opportunity to make history Saturday.
An Iowa win against Kentucky would tie the 24th-year Iowa football coach with Penn State’s Joe Paterno for most bowl wins as a Big Ten head coach with 10.
The record book aside, the bowl also will give Iowa fans somewhat of a glimpse into the future.
Here are three keys for the Music City Bowl that, along with surely helping the Hawkeyes against Kentucky, will be important to watch from a long-term standpoint:
What does Joe Labas show at quarterback?
Saturday’s game is essentially an audition for Joe Labas, who will be not only making his first career start, but also taking his first in-game snap as a college quarterback.
The redshirt freshman’s only opportunity in the public eye before this week was at Iowa’s open practice in August.
The audition does not come with an easy set of circumstances. Labas has been transitioning since the end of the regular season from working on the scout team to taking first-team reps in practice.
Regardless of how Labas plays, transfer Cade McNamara likely will still be the presumed starting quarterback for 2023.
But a stellar performance from Labas would give Iowa’s staff something to think about heading into 2023 spring practices and fall camp.
How much has Iowa’s offensive line developed since the end of the regular season?
Ferentz earlier this month described the bowl practices as “really important opportunities for all the players that haven't played a lot or even guys that have played that are younger to continue to move forward as players.”
That is especially the case at offensive line — one of Iowa’s most inexperienced position groups.
Iowa’s starting offensive linemen heading into the bowl game include one junior, three sophomores and a redshirt freshman.
An improved offensive line would be especially helpful in building Labas’ comfort although he does have the ability to make plays with his feet.
Which younger players on the defense shine?
Almost exactly a year ago, Cooper DeJean essentially made a touchdown-saving play in the Citrus Bowl as he tackled Kentucky wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson a yard short of the end zone.
The tackle itself became a moot point when Kentucky scored a touchdown on the next play. However, it foreshadowed a larger role for DeJean on Iowa’s defense.
With four interceptions in 2022, two of which he returned for touchdowns, DeJean now is a key part of Iowa’s success in the secondary.
It is possible for another future defensive contributor to show a flash of what they’re capable of in this year’s Music City Bowl.
Former five-star recruit Xavier Nwankpa is one possibility after safety Kaevon Merriweather’s opt-out created a void in the secondary.
What’s at stake
Along with Ferentz’s shot at history, Iowa would add another trophy to its collection with a win Saturday, and seniors would end their careers on a win.
Saturday’s outcome is unlikely to have a significant long-term impact for either team, though.
Both teams have some unknowns, especially at quarterback, which could make for another game of the unexpected to wrap up a 2022 season with many unexpected things.
Iowa 20, Kentucky 17