Leistikow: Hawkeyes in an appreciative mood ahead of Citrus Bowl matchup vs. Kentucky

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — The Iowa football team this week is staying in a high-rise hotel here at the hub of tourist activity on International Drive. Players have already visited nearby Sea World and were set to attend an NBA game on Tuesday night between the Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks. They’ll hit up renowned Universal Studios on Thursday.

Considering the Hawkeyes had their bowl game canceled a year ago due to COVID-19 issues with their opponent’s program and five college bowl games have already been canceled this month due to the virus, there’s a high level of appreciation setting in for this group ahead of Saturday’s noon CT Citrus Bowl matchup with Kentucky.

“The fact that we’re down here for a week is great,” Iowa 23rd-year head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Last year really taught us, I think, never to take anything for granted. Just be appreciative of what’s out there.”

Neither Iowa nor Kentucky are experiencing COVID-19 issues and are tracking well to compete in a matchup that’ll end one team’s season quite favorably — either Iowa’s fourth 11-win season in program history or Kentucky’s second 10-win season since 1977.

Iowa offensive linemen Cody Ince (73) and Justin Britt enter their day's practice field at West Orange High School on Tuesday.

“Everybody’s done a good job of managing their social lives,” Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell said.

Win or lose Saturday, Iowa is thankful that it’s gotten many of its young players bowl-prep experience they didn’t get a year ago ahead of the Music City Bowl cancellation against Missouri.

“Everything about it’s good,” Ferentz said. “It’s a week where you’re staying somewhere nicer than in the real world. You’re getting fed better than you normally would in the real world. And we’re not paying for a penny of it. It’s a really good deal.”

For Spencer Petras, the presumed No. 1 QB, this game is important on multiple levels.

Though Ferentz hasn’t named a starter for Saturday, Petras was taking the No. 1 reps Tuesday in open-to-media portions of practice. Petras knows that there is a lot of meaning for the future of Iowa’s quarterback situation tied into how Saturday unfolds. It’s possible that this is his last game as a Hawkeye, and the same is true for Alex Padilla. One or both could be entering the NCAA transfer portal to seek a new opportunity after Saturday, in part depending what path Iowa coaches choose after a frustrating year on offense.

But Petras provided a good answer about the big-picture elephant in the QB room.

“Every game is huge. This is the last game we have as a 2021 team,” Petras said. “And I want to go out with a win. Obviously, we all do. There would be nothing better than to be able to look back and remember our 2021 year as winning 11 games.”

Alex Padilla said the uncertainty “has been a little bit difficult.”

The redshirt sophomore, who certainly gave Iowa’s offense a spark against Northwestern and Minnesota, said the safe things Tuesday: That he was preparing as if he is going to start on Saturday and that this game is all that matters. However, it can’t be ignored that two Mountain West Conference schools are openly seeking quarterbacks — Wyoming (where former Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek is offensive coordinator) and Colorado State (his father Mike’s alma mater). But being the No. 1 QB at Iowa has been Padilla’s dream and goal for three-plus years.

“I’ll think about the future when that comes,” Padilla said. “I’m just focused on this game, focused on my improvement.”

He and Petras are good friends but added, “It's definitely not an easy thing for either of us. It's not a position we exactly want to be in. But we’re making the most of it.”

Padilla said getting the No. 1 reps during bowl prep as Petras was sidelined with his midsection injury helped his game improve. But will he get a chance Saturday to show that growth against Kentucky?

“That’s up to the coaches,” Padilla said diplomatically. “My job every day is to improve and work hard.”

Three running backs are likely to play Saturday.

It’s less important who starts at running back, but Ferentz doubled down on the fact that Ivory Kelly-Martin, Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams will see time vs. the Wildcats. The Hawkeyes will look different without featured back Tyler Goodson, who opted out of the game while declaring for the NFL Draft, but they’re optimistic they’ll be able to move the ball on the ground.

“Obviously, we’d love to have Tyler with us, but I’ve been really happy to see these young guys step up,” Petras said. “The coolest thing has been seeing Gavin and Leshon really take the next step to the point where I have faith and coaches have faith … that when they go in the game, there’s not going to be as much drop-off."

Some roster notes of note …

Iowa has brought back walk-on Connor Kapisak to run the scout team during bowl preparations, which has increased the opportunity for true freshman Joe Labas. A smart move to get as good a look at Labas as possible before future decisions are made at QB.

“He’s gotten a lot of reps in our offense,” Ferentz said. “This is like a jump on spring ball for him in some ways.”

Cornerback Terry Roberts has been ruled out of Saturday’s game. That's a bummer for the redshirt junior, a special-teams star who got his first career start at cornerback Oct. 16 only to see it end with a bone bruise that was slow to recover. He'll likely be a Hawkeye starter next season, especially if Riley Moss turns pro as he is leaning.

Iowa’s starting offensive line with the first unit Tuesday was (from left to right) Mason Richman, Cody Ince, Tyler Linderbaum, Connor Colby and Jack Plumb. Fifth-year senior Kyler Schott was working with the second unit, which had a new face at left tackle — highly touted true freshman David Davidkov.

Ince has been struggling with injuries all year; perhaps this could be a big finishing moment for him. The redshirt junior hasn’t started since a Week 4 win against Colorado State.

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.