Iowa's defense is preparing for three Kentucky quarterbacks for Music City Bowl

NASHVILLE - Iowa football's defense has been the backbone of its 2022 campaign. Despite a disappointing 7-5 regular-season record, the defense was stellar as it finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, yards per play among other statistics.

And the group has one more goal this season: Finish the year with one more strong performance in the Music City Bowl against Kentucky (Saturday at 11 a.m. on ABC).

Hawkeye players point to preparation as the central reason for their success this season. They faced Kentucky in last year's Citrus Bowl but this year presents a completely different set of challenges. Pre-bowl game transfers and NFL Draft opt-outs have drastically shifted how teams must prepare for their opponents. The Wildcats saw nine offensive players enter the transfer portal but two NFL opt-outs are marquee absences: quarterback and projected first-round pick Will Levis and leading rusher Chris Rodriquez. Add in second-leading rusher Kavosiey Smoke (transfer) and Kentucky will be without nearly 90% of its offensive output this season.

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"I feel like this challenge is like playing the first game of a season," linebacker Jack Campbell said. "It's something I can compare to playing Iowa State this year, it was (Cyclones quarterback Hunter Dekkers) first year starting. So kind of a challenge like that, not knowing exactly what a guy likes to do, but we're going to have to prepare for whoever's going to be in there."

Iowa defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness (91) sacks Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) as Iowa defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg (97) brings pressure during the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2022, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

The Hawkeyes will prepare for Kentucky's run schemes as normally planned but preparing for the starting quarterback is the unit's biggest challenge. Of the Wildcats’ possible options, only one, redshirt freshman Kaiya Sheron, has played in a college game (he has 29 career pass attempts). The other options are true freshman Destin Wade and former Hawkeye Deuce Hogan, who transferred to Kentucky last off-season.

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There's growing buzz that Kentucky is leaning toward Wade for his first career start. A four-star recruit in the 2022 class, Wade won the Tennessee Mr. Football award in 2021 after leading Summit High to a 14-1 record and a Class 6A state runner-up finish. He accounted for 3,748 all-purpose yards (1,436 passing, 2,312 rushing) and 49 total touchdowns. Iowa's defense has gotten well acquainted with his high school film.

And Iowa defenders noted that they've watched some of Hogan's practice film from his time in Iowa as a scout-team quarterback should he play in an emergency situation.

"(Wade) has no college film so you have to look at his Hudl (a popular platform for high school game tape)," cornerback Riley Moss said. "It's tough when you know it could be two or three guys but you have to prepare for everything. We started on (Kentucky game planning) last week so we have a pretty good idea of some stuff."

Defensive back Cooper DeJean noted that even in the absence of key players in the backfield, Kentucky still has dangerous perimeter weapons. The Wildcats' top four pass catchers are expected to play on Saturday, including a trio of receivers: Barion Brown, Dane Key and Tayvion Robinson, who are all averaging at least 13 yards per catch. And without starting safety Kaevon Merriweather (NFL Draft opt-out), the Hawkeyes are emphasizing sound communication and identifying assignments to prevent big plays.

Without a clear idea of who will take snaps under center, the Iowa defenders are focusing on controlling what they can control. Campbell noted that the game itself likely won't come down to anything special, and the key for the defense is to continue being what it’s been all season.

"This game is going to be about fundamental football," Campbell said. "That, communicating at a high level and just doing your job. It sounds simple but in all our games we've played those are the things that matter. It's easy at bowl games, because there's inherent distractions that you can lose focus and some of those fundamental things so that's what we're focused on."