Leistikow: A new quarterback, big opportunity for Iowa football in Music City Bowl

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

The Iowa football program is heading to the Music City Bowl, for real this time. And if you want to see some change on offense from the Hawkeyes, you’re likely going to get some on Dec. 31.

Barring something unforeseen over the next four weeks, third-string quarterback Joe Labas will be the first-stringer for Iowa’s matchup against Kentucky. (These teams also met in last season's Citrus Bowl, a game won by Kentucky in the final minutes.) The New Year’s Eve clash between the 7-5 Hawkeyes and 7-5 Wildcats of the Southeastern Conference will take place at 11 a.m. CT at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans. ABC will televise the game.

With Alex Padilla’s entry into the NCAA transfer portal and a throwing-arm injury to Spencer Petras suffered in the first quarter of Iowa’s regular-season finale vs. Nebraska that required surgery, Labas becomes the healthiest, best available quarterback for the Hawkeyes. The dynamic of a Hawkeye quarterback taking his first collegiate snaps as the starter in a bowl game certainly would be unique in the 24-year Kirk Ferentz era and in Hawkeye history.

Ferentz confirmed on Sunday that Petras would be sidelined for the bowl game and the recovery would take several months before he can throw a football again.

From Thursday night:Leistikow: Cade McNamara commitment signals change on offense, Iowa football's growing NIL strength

While the big quarterback news of the last week has been the commitment of Michigan graduate transfer Cade McNamara, he won’t arrive until January (and his timetable to return from a knee injury is unclear), this is another intriguing glimpse into the future of Hawkeye quarterbacks. Labas and true freshman Carson May are the only available, healthy quarterbacks and would be taking the first- and second-team reps during bowl preparations. While McNamara is planning to use his two remaining years of eligibility at Iowa, the race is already beginning to be McNamara’s backup.

“It’ll be him or Carson May. One of those two," Ferentz said. "We’ll let those guys work the next four weeks and see how they do. We were on the field (Saturday) and both of them did some good things. But obviously, we’ve got work to do with both guys. The good news is we have four weeks to get that done.

“Obviously, they’re lacking experience right now, and it’s our job to move them forward.”

While Labas clearly has more experience than May, who arrived in June, that experience may not be as extensive as it seems. Ferentz noted that one of the byproducts of changing to morning practices and an early-week practice schedule was it limited development periods for the No. 3 quarterback. Labas and May have mostly been scout-teamers this fall, and QB reps in practices are mostly limited to the No. 1 and No. 2 guys.

“We’ll do our  best to take advantage of this time," Ferentz said. "That’s the good news about December, is you have time available. We’ll try to find out what they can do and do successfully.

“Our intention is to win this game. We’ll try to figure out a plan that’s going to give us an opportunity to do that.”

If it's Labas what can he do with this opportunity to go from "never the guy" to THE guy? His self-proclaimed label of "dual-threat quarterback" on the team's media day offers enough intrigue that maybe on a third-and-8, the Hawkeyes' quarterback can scramble for a first down.

"I like to think I’m instinctual," Labas said in August. "Without even thinking, just knowing what to do when the bullets are flying."

Kentucky won't be an easy assignment for whoever is the Hawkeyes' new quarterback. The Mark Stoops-coached Wildcats boast the nation's No. 18-ranked defense and held top-ranked Georgia to 16 points in a meeting a few weeks ago. Some good news, though: Kentucky has only 19 sacks this season, 105th in FBS.

Joe Labas is shown during Iowa's spring game. The redshirt freshman has never played in a college game.

And how about this wrinkle? If Kentucky quarterback Will Levis doesn't play in the game (he already has declared for the NFL Draft but hasn't announced whether he would opt out of the Music City Bowl), the Wildcats would be one step closer to putting former Hawkeye Deuce Hogan on the field. Hogan transferred to Kentucky after last season and was Kentucky's No. 3 quarterback this year but did not take a game snap. (We might be one injury away from a Labas vs. Hogan dual.)

Whether Iowa wins the Music City Bowl to finish 8-5 or loses it to finish 7-6 isn't a huge deal as far as the future of the program or how we see the Hawkeyes' 2022 season. The result will definitely mean a lot to program stalwarts like Jack Campbell and Riley Moss and Kaevon Merriweather and (maybe) Sam LaPorta to get a victory in their final game in the black and gold.

More:Iowa football heading to Music City Bowl, where Hawkeyes' 2020 game was canceled by COVID

And beyond the quarterback situation, this game offers chances for 2023 building blocks to shine. Want to have a leg up come spring practice? True freshman running back Kaleb Johnson could solidify his status as a future program star with a big bowl game. (While Kentucky has the No. 7 rated passing defense nationally, it's a pedestrian No. 60 against the run.) Tight end Luke Lachey gained a lot of confidence from his seven-catch, 89-yard game against Nebraska, can he put another game on film to show he's the program's next great tight end?

What about offensive-line play? We saw a big jump forward between last year's Nebraska game and the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky with the way Iowa blocked. The Hawkeyes averaged a season-high 6.4 yards per play in that game a year ago and 5.8 per carry. Could this December period be a big growth period for young linemen like Connor Colby, Logan Jones and Beau Stephens?

Bottom line, there is an opportunity for a lot of young Hawkeyes to launch themselves into the 2023 offense − whatever that looks like − with a good Music City Bowl performance. And there's an opportunity for a lot of program staples to end their careers with a victory.

“It’s not ideal, but I think back to 2010 and a (freshman) named (Marcus) Coker ran for 225 or whatever it was against Missouri (in the Insight Bowl)," Ferentz said. "We as coaches have got to figure out what we can do to give our team the best chance to win, knowing the players involved. We’ll know a lot more after a couple weeks here. It is a highly interesting situation, but we’ve got a lot of strengths on our team, too, so we’ll try to play to those.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.