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NASHVILLE — Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops summed up his team’s 21-0 loss to Iowa in the Music City Bowl in six words.
“Iowa won today by being Iowa,” he said in his postgame news conference at Nissan Stadium.
The Hawkeyes’ defense, for the fourth time this season, outscored the offense.
Iowa’s 10 first downs barely outnumbered its eight punts.
Iowa only had a 206-185 advantage in total yards, yet won by a comfy, 21-0, margin.
Debut of ‘Broadway Joe’
Redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Labas — or as tight end Sam LaPorta called him, “Broadway Joe” — did not have an easy set of circumstances going into the Music City Bowl.
Labas quickly went from third-string quarterback taking reps on the scout team to Iowa’s No. 1 quarterback in December in a system that former Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla said takes 12 to 18 months to “learn the intricacies.”
Yet Labas had a respectable showing in his debut, going 14-for-24 for 139 yards with one touchdown.
When Labas did not connect with his intended target, the throws often were on target and never in significant danger of being intercepted.
Excluding Iowa’s final drive, he had seven incompletions. Five of those seven were either on the mark, but well-covered, thrown away or batted at the line of scrimmage.
The redshirt freshman’s performance still had a few imperfections.
Labas was 0-for-3 on Iowa’s final drive. He overshot the 6-foot-6 tight end Luke Lachey twice, and his other miss was deflected by a nearby Kentucky defender.
He also had two third-down completions earlier in the game that were for two yards when Iowa needed five and eight yards, respectively.
But Labas had a better completion percentage than Spencer Petras or Padilla had in 2022 despite going against a defense that only gave up 19.2 points per game.
Labas also did not turn the ball over, which Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward is “easier said than done.”
No fly zone for Kentucky’s top WR
Kentucky was a run-heavy team in 2022 — it had 464 rushing attempts and 349 passing attempts in 13 games — but the Music City Bowl was an exception.
Kentucky threw the ball 30 times, and, when excluding sacks, ran the ball 28 times. That was not by accident.
“We felt like we had to spread it out a bit,” Stoops said. “We weren't quite the same team we were a year ago. They are still very physical and very tough up front, so hitting in big sets and playing smash-mouth with them I think was going to be a tough spot.”
Much of the alternative to “smash-mouth” football turned out to be Kentucky quarterback Destin Wade trying to find star wide receiver Barion Brown.
But Iowa shut down the Wade-to-Brown connection.
Wade targeted Brown 16 times, but the former five-star recruit only hauled in five catches. All five completions were on throws either behind the line of scrimmage or within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Game film shows it was a result of more than just one defensive back. Sebastian Castro, Cooper DeJean, Riley Moss and Xavier Nwankpa all had plays that took away completions.
DeJean had the most eye-catching of the plays when he jumped Wade’s throw to Brown with ease and returned it for a touchdown.
“Cooper DeJean read that thing from a mile away,” play-by-play commentator Matt Barrie said on the ABC broadcast.
Kentucky also tried to involve Brown on the ground, but to little avail. Brown could not reach the line of scrimmage on either of his rushes.
Frustration was evident as Brown at one point drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Deontae Craig quietly puts up big numbers
DeJean and Nwankpa’s pick-6s grabbed headlines, but another underclassman on the defense quietly had a noteworthy performance as well.
Defensive lineman Deontae Craig had 3.5 tackles for loss and a strip-sack.
While the fumble went out of bounds, Craig’s sack halted momentum on a Kentucky drive as UK tried picking up points before halftime.
The Wildcats had just pulled off gains of 12 and nine yards and were nearing Iowa territory. They were about 20-25 yards short of field goal range with 26 seconds and two timeouts remaining.
The mobile Wade escaped the pocket, but Craig kept up with him and took him down for the sack. Kentucky ran the ball on the next play, essentially waving the white flag for the drive.
Craig ended the 2022 season with the team lead in sacks with 6.5, and his 10 tackles for loss are second to only Lukas Van Ness’ 10.5 despite taking significantly fewer snaps than many of Iowa’s other defensive linemen.