Iowa football instant analysis: Anemic offense costs Hawkeyes in Citrus Bowl against Kentucky

Iowa's final game of the season played out how nearly all of their biggest wins have this year: A slow start followed by a sudden, late charge in winning time. 

It appeared as if the Vrbo Citrus Bowl would be a similar result. But an explosive Kentucky drive and a Spencer Petras interception left the No. 16 Hawkeyes with a season-ending 20-17 defeat. 

Kentucky's Chris Rodriquez scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:48 remaining in the game. That score capped off an 80-yard touchdown drive in a little over three minutes of game time. Iowa marched into Kentucky territory on the ensuing drive but Petras throw an awkward interception to end Iowa's season at 10-4.

The first part of the game played out like too many Iowa games this season: With an anemic Hawkeye offense failing to generate much. 

Iowa's offense has only scored one opening drive touchdown this season — in the opening game against Indiana four months ago. Since then, it's been nine punts, two turnovers and one missed field goal. Saturday's first drive ended with similarly, with another punt. Overall, the Hawkeyes finished the first half with just over 100 yards of offense, two turnovers and zero third-down conversions. 

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

Slow starts have also been the trend for Iowa's defense this year. Kentucky's opening 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive added to the 89 first-quarter points surrendered by the Hawkeye defense.

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras (7) reacts after coming up short on a quarterback sneak against Kentucky on Saturday at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

But as they've done all year, they adjusted. 

The question, like it usually is, was whether the Iowa offense could do the same. 

Kentucky only managed 76 yards for the rest of the first half, 34 of them on one play. Iowa went into halftime with three sacks and six tackles for loss. In his Iowa finale, defensive end Zach VanValkenburg delivered a masterful performance: 8 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.

A mantra all season for Iowa's defense has been "putting out the fires," limiting opposing points when put in advantageous situations. Twice, one after a Petras interception, Iowa's defense held Kentucky to a field goal in the red zone to keep their offense in striking distance on the scoreboard.

That moment came midway through the third quarter. 

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

Down 13-3 with 7:47 left in the third, Iowa was inside the Kentucky red zone but a botched connection between Petras and Tyler Linderbaum on a fourth-and-1 snap left them without points. Iowa's defense forced a quick three-and-out to set their offense up near midfield. The Hawkeyes scored a touchdown on the next drive via freshman receiver Arland Bruce IV on an end-around run to cut the deficit to 13-10.

And for a bit, the Hawkeyes took control against No. 20 Kentucky (10-3). 

Iowa wide receiver Arland Bruce IV (10) runs in a touchdown in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl against Kentucky on Saturday at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

Iowa's offense was without arguably their two top weapons — running back Tyler Goodson (opt-out) and wide receiver Keagan Johnson, a late scratch to injury. Iowa's running backs found a spark riding the running game. 

The committee of Gavin Williams, Leshon Williams and Ivory Kelly-Martin combined for 146 yards — over two-thirds of that in the second half — and 7.2 yards per carry. The redshirt freshmen Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams carried the load offensively in the second half with their tough, power running that tired out the Wildcat defense toward the end of the game. 

Petras found his favorite target — tight end Sam LaPorta — on a 36-yard tight end screen to give the Hawkeyes a 17-13 lead with 10:54 remaining in the game and capping off a 92-yard touchdown drive. 

It looked like the defense sealed the game toward the end. Cornerback Jermari Harris, likely the leader of Iowa's cornerbacks next year, intercepted Kentucky's Will Levis with four minutes remaining. But Iowa’s offense couldn’t salt the game away and gave Kentucky one last opportunity to win the game.

And that's what happened. 

More:Iowa football's Keagan Johnson missed the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky

Starting on their own 20-yard line after a Tory Taylor punt went into the end zone, pass plays of 17, 10 and 52 yards set up Kentucky’s game-winning score. 

Iowa had a chance late with just under 2 minutes left when the Hawkeyes got the ball back. The Hawkeyes were driving with little time remaining but Petras’ third interception of the game ended comeback hopes and the season.

Iowa will enter the offseason with a tough questions to answer. The offense's late push in the Citrus Bowl doesn't negate their season's struggles. Does Iowa need to shake up its coaching staff? Do they need to find a new starting quarterback in the transfer portal?

It’s better to answer those questions following a win.

Now, after a painful loss, here comes a challenging offseason.