Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Kirk Ferentz's fourth-and-inches punt proves costly in Iowa football's Citrus Bowl loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

ORLANDO, Fla. — Kirk Ferentz’s decision to punt on fourth-and-inches with just over 3½ minutes to go came back to bite the Iowa Hawkeyes in their quest for an 11th win.

Would the Hawkeyes have converted? Not having their all-American center on the field probably wouldn't have helped, but Ferentz said that didn't factor in his decision. 

But the 23rd-year head coach's choice to give Kentucky’s dynamic offense a chance to regain control of the game resulted in a 20-17 loss before 50,769 fans at Camping World Stadium.

Iowa was on its own 45-yard line with a 17-13 lead, with 3:38 left. Kentucky was out of timeouts. The run game had been terrific all afternoon for the Hawkeyes, the offensive line seemingly having taken over the game in the second half. Gain a few inches, and the game is all but over … Iowa would have been able to chew up at least 2:45 of game clock (about 30 seconds of clock after moving the chains, then three snaps of at least 5 seconds each, plus 40 seconds between plays) and left the Wildcats with almost nothing if they got the ball back at all.

But Ferentz didn't see the risk/reward that way.

"Pretty simple for me. I felt like I liked our odds. In a perfect world, you like to (punt) the ball inside the 20," Ferentz said. "But even with the ball, they had 80 yards (to go).

"We played those odds. In retrospect, like a lot of things, you'd do it over. But I felt comfortable with where we were at."

Instead, Iowa put its defense on the field to try to salt this one away. That strategy had worked before against lesser quarterbacks, but didn’t this time against a star quarterback in Kentucky's Will Levis.

Kentucky players celebrate the winning touchdown scored by Chris Rodriguez Jr. as Riley Moss kneels. The Wildcats won, 20-17.

On the fourth-and-inches situation, Spencer Petras initially went onto the field to try to draw Kentucky offside. That didn’t work, and Iowa called its second timeout. The Hawkeyes lined up in a bunched formation, seemingly showing a potential fake. But Tory Taylor punted, and the kick soared helplessly into the Kentucky end zone for a touchback and 35-yard net.

And Kentucky had 3:31 left, a football eternity.

And Levis and Wan’Dale Robinson led an impressive march down the field to break the Hawkeyes' hearts.

How it happened:Iowa football loses to Kentucky 20-17 in the Citrus Bowl

Iowa’s desperation drive ended with Petras’ third interception of the day, caught by DeAndre Square at the Kentucky 26-yard line, with 48 seconds to go.

Kentucky finished 10-3 and as the Citrus Bowl champions.

Iowa finished 10-4. It was the first time this season Iowa had lost a game decided by 10 points or less. The Hawkeyes were 7-0 in those types of games 

“This is a very special football team. It was really an honor to work with these guys," Ferentz said. "They fought right to the end, the last whistle.”

Remember that game-winning play against Penn State?

Of course, you do — the long pass from Petras to Nico Ragaini for 44 yards in the fourth quarter that helped the Hawkeyes emerge, 23-20, in a top-five showdown against Penn State.

Iowa's offense dipped back into that play twice Saturday. The first time, Petras connected with Sam LaPorta for a 34-yard gain that helped flip field position in the third quarter. That was Petras’ best throw of the day.

In the fourth quarter, the Penn State call came again on a first-and-10 after a career-best 19-yard run by Gavin Williams. On a play-action fake, Petras had Ragaini running wide open near the left sideline but overshot him with about 13½ minutes to go.

But Iowa overcame it. A third-and-7 screen conversion to Ivory Kelly-Martin for 7 yards and a third-and-2 toss to Luke Lachey for 12 set the Hawkeyes up for a go-ahead score. Then, on a tight-end screen to LaPorta, the junior rumbled 36 yards behind a wall of blockers up the left sideline for a go-ahead touchdown with 10:54 to go. That capped a nine-play, 92-yard drive and gave Iowa it 17-13 lead.

"We set it up throughout the game," said LaPorta, who finished with seven catches for a career-high 122 yards. "I basically got escorted into the end zone. I didn't get touched until I got down there. That's a credit to the big guys hustling down the field."

Petras got the start and finished the game. He went 19-for-30 for 211 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Alex Padilla did not play. 

More:Iowa football's Keagan Johnson will not play in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky

Tyler Linderbaum paved the way in Iowa’s improved run game but left briefly with a foot injury.

The consensus all-American center clutched his left foot and hobbled off the field in the fourth quarter and was replaced by fifth-year senior Kyler Schott for one series.

That was tough to see, considering all Linderbaum has meant to the Hawkeyes and with an NFL decision likely in the coming weeks. Linderbaum did return on the final desperation drive that failed.

Linderbaum was also at the center of a controversial non-call in the third quarter.

With Iowa down, 13-3, and facing a fourth-and-1 from Kentucky's 11, a quarterback-sneak call failed when the snap didn't make it from Linderbaum to Petras. 

Petras explained why.

"The nose tackle hit Linderbaum before the ball was snapped and didn't get called. Pretty blatant," Petras said. "The exchange was bad ... because he's getting hit before he snaps the ball, which is a penalty that we didn't get. But it doesn't matter. Things are going to happen over the course of the game and we had an opportunity to make this thing happen and come out with a win. 

"I didn't get it done, and the team didn't get it done."

Behind Linderbaum, the freshman running-back tandem of Gavin and Leshon Williams looked very good in the first game after Tyler Goodson’s NFL opt-out.

Gavin finished with 98 yards on 16 carries. Leshon, in his first meaningful action as a Hawkeye, churned out 42 yards on 10 attempts. Another freshman, receiver Arland Bruce IV, made his presence felt in the run game with a 20-yard end-around for Iowa's first touchdown in the third quarter. 

Kentucky’s play-makers were too much for the Hawkeyes, from beginning to end.

The biggest play of the first half came with Kentucky facing a third-and-26 from its own 46-yard line after back-to-back, 8-yard sacks by Joe Evans and Zach VanValkenburg. Iowa’s defense had seemingly assumed control of the game on the heels of the offense’s best drive of the afternoon.

Levis, though, dropped back and under pressure from Evans delivered a gorgeous over-the-middle ball to his top receiver, Robinson. The Nebraska transfer laid out between two Hawkeye defenders and made a diving, 34-yard catch. There wasn’t much space between Dane Belton and Jack Koerner, but Robinson’s 97th catch of the season was a dagger for the Hawkeyes. Instead of getting the ball back down 7-3, Iowa was backed into its own red zone. Kentucky was on the doorstep for more points … and got them with a red-zone field goal.

Two Iowa plays later, Petras committed the game’s first turnover with an interception off a deflected pass. Kentucky turned that miscue into three more points and a 13-3 halftime lead.

On Kentucky's winning drive, Levis hit Robinson for a 17-yard strike over the middle on a clutch third-and-10. Levis connected with Robinson again for 10 and 52 yards to set up Chris Rodriguez Jr.'s 6-yard score with 1:48 to play, putting Kentucky ahead, 20-17.

Robinson finished with 170 receiving yards on 10 catches and was named the game's MVP.

More:Photos of 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl football game between Iowa Hawkeyes and Kentucky

The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, were short on play-makers. They were without freshman wide receiver Keagan Johnson, who was ruled out after experiencing abdominal pain overnight.

"Could be kidney stones. Might be an appendix, but he had a tough early morning, if you will, and as far as I know, he is doing fine," Ferentz said. "But I have not heard a final diagnosis."

The Hawkeyes finished the season being outscored in the first quarter, 89-49.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker and the defensive staff deserve a ton of credit for the adjustments it has made much of the season. But the first-quarter woes put the Hawkeyes in a bad spot in the last portion of this season.

For the third time in four games, Iowa’s defense gave up a long, opening-drive touchdown to its opponent.

Against Illinois: Iowa fell behind, 10-0, after surrendering a 12-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 6 minutes, 23 seconds of game clock.

Against Nebraska: A 12-play, 75-yard drive that gobbled 5:42 put Iowa in a quick 7-0 hole (and later, 14-3).

Against Kentucky: The Wildcats churned out a 13-play, 80-yard march with a steady diet of runs and short passes to take a 7-0 advantage and chew up 7:28 of clock.

The only game in this stretch of four that Iowa’s defense held up on the first drive? Against Michigan in the Big Ten title game, but the Wolverines popped long-play touchdowns on the second and third possessions for a 14-3 lead.

Opponents have figured out that the best way to beat Parker’s defense is to be patient and take what the Hawkeyes give them. 

“We’ve had a lot of games in that first series where we’re not all there, I’d say," said linebacker Jack Campbell, who led Iowa with 14 tackles. "That’s something we’ll need to work on (next season).”

Still, Parker’s defense tightened up the rest of the way against Kentucky. It finished with six sacks. But it couldn't get the final stop that Ferentz asked of them.

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.

Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta (84) runs for extra yards after a catch as Kentucky's Davonte Robinson (9) defends during Saturday's Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.