Leistikow's 4 thoughts: Focus on recovery is smart move as Iowa's Citrus Bowl prep can wait

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — The emotions from Iowa’s 42-3 loss in the Big Ten Conference championship game were still raw Sunday afternoon when the Hawkeyes accepted a bid to play in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl against Kentucky.

“It was a tough experience,” all-American center Tyler Linderbaum said. “We didn’t perform the way we wanted to perform, but you’ve got to move on. Take these two days, rest your mind, rest your body, recover.”

Rest was a prominent theme as Linderbaum, all-Big Ten safety Dane Belton and head coach Kirk Ferentz spoke about what comes next after such a deflating result in the biggest game anyone wearing a Hawkeye helmet had played in.

Ferentz, in fact, started thinking about this very thing a few weeks ago — which he admitted was strange, because it was a long shot then that Iowa (10-3) would make the Big Ten title game. He recalled that after the crushing last-minute loss to Michigan State in the 2015 Big Ten title game, Iowa players were more fractured mentally heading into the Rose Bowl matchup with Stanford.

And you know what happened in that game; Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal ran all over the Hawkeyes in Pasadena, 45-16.

“That was one clear takeaway from ’15. We weren’t where we needed to be, mentally or emotionally for that ballgame,” Ferentz said. “I’m not sure as much physically, but mentally and emotionally. We’ve got to do a better job as coaches.”

Ferentz said he can’t prove it, but he would guess Michigan State was equally drained from that game. The Spartans lost in the College Football Playoff to Alabama, 38-0.

That’s another alarm bell for Ferentz that he can’t push his players too hard this month. The plan is to bring them back Tuesday. There will be two lifts this week and some light work this weekend. Next week is a low-key week with final exams on campus. Meantime, coaches are entering a busy recruiting stretch. 

The Hawkeyes will begin their Kentucky game-planning after that, essentially devoting two weeks to Citrus preparations.

More:How to watch Iowa football vs. Kentucky in the 2022 Citrus Bowl game

“They really spent everything they’ve got, I think, for us to get 10 wins,” Ferentz said. “It took everything. I just can’t say enough how appreciative I am of their commitment, their dedication and efforts they’ve put out.”

Added Linderbaum: “Big Ten West champs, that doesn’t come easy. We’ve been through a lot of tough, hard-fought games, especially in that month of November, every game coming down the wire. And then we played against a great Michigan team. It hurt. It hurts a lot, not being able to win in Indy. A couple days off is going to feel nice, mentally and physically.”

Mark Stoops vs. Kirk Ferentz (and their Hawkeye adoration) is certainly a spotlight story for this game.

Stoops, 54, was the last of the three Stoops brothers from Ohio to play for Hayden Fry in Iowa City. During Sunday’s Citrus Bowl media call, Stoops — Kentucky's ninth-year head coach — shared how his father would coach a high school game on Friday night, then the family drove overnight 10 hours to Iowa City to watch Bob and Mike play, and then go back to Ohio on Sunday. Of course, Ferentz was Iowa's offensive line coach in the 1980s.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops recently signed a contract extension to stay put in Lexington. The former Hawkeye is 58-53 in nine years as head coach.

“You just saw a man that was going to be successful,” Stoops said Sunday.

The Jan. 1, noon CT kickoff in Orlando will allow Ferentz to complete the coaching-matchup hat trick with the Stoops boys. Ferentz coached against Mike at Arizona (in 2009 and 2010) and against Bob at Oklahoma (in the 2011 Insight Bowl).

Ferentz recalled Mark Stoops’ recruiting visit to Iowa and then-defensive coordinator Bill Brashier saying, “There was no way this guy was going to be a college football player.”

“The point was, Mark at that time probably looked like he was 15,” Ferentz said. “Coach Fry had his mind made up already, and it certainly panned out. All three boys had tremendous careers here.”

Mark Stoops has turned Kentucky into a winner in the rugged Southeastern Conference. He has a 58-53 record in nine seasons, quite an accomplishment when going against the likes of Florida and Georgia every year. The Wildcats are 25-25 in SEC play over the last six years, and Stoops was recently rewarded with a contract extension through the 2028 season.

More:5 things to know about Kentucky football, Iowa's opponent in the Citrus Bowl

Ferentz added that it’s no surprise Stoops has turned Kentucky into a winner.

This is definitely a mutual-respect bowl game.

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

Kirk Ferentz has a lot of big-picture stuff to sort out this month, from recruiting to managing workload for his team to a delicate quarterback situation.

This will be an interesting month at the quarterback position.

First off, at quarterback, Ferentz said he expected Spencer Petras to be available for the Citrus Bowl. Petras started the game against Michigan but left in the third quarter after lingering effects from a midsection injury. “He took a shot and at least strained some stuff in his abdominal area,” Ferentz said. “He’s going to be fine, but he’s in discomfort and probably will be for a while.”

After the game, I asked backup quarterback Alex Padilla if he and Petras — good friends — had discussed returning together in the spring following last week's news of third-string QB Deuce Hogan entering the transfer portal. “Haven’t really thought too much about the future,” Padilla said. “Just been focused on this game. That’s a conversation for down the road.”

How Iowa wants to proceed with both QBs who have had mixed success this season will be interesting. If Petras is healthy, coaches have tended to lean his way. But there still seems to be some untapped potential with Padilla, who went 3-0 as a starter. There are strong opinions in the fan base on both sides of the quarterback conversation.

Ferentz has historically gone with the player who gives his team the best chance to win … but did have that unusual approach in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl in which Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard alternated series. (As awkward as that situation was, it did work out in Iowa's favor … with Beathard staying and starring for two more years.)

It feels like both guys deserve to play in the game. No strong feel yet on how this plays out.

Early thoughts on the matchup …

Without getting too deep into the weeds, this looks like another tough matchup for the way Iowa is built. The Wildcats are explosive on offense. They average 6.56 yards per play (compared to Iowa’s 4.55) while boasting a strong defense, especially against the run. Iowa ranks 19th nationally in total defense vs. Kentucky’s 26th.

The Wildcats are early favorites by 1½ points.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.