Iowa football's defense dominates one more time, propels Hawkeyes to Music City Bowl win

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

Initially, it didn't seem like there was much fan interest in Iowa football's Music City Bowl game against Kentucky on New Year's Eve.

The Hawkeyes' regular season ended on a sour note with a loss to Nebraska and as high school recruiting and the transfer portal shifted to the forefront in December, the bowl game almost became an afterthought.

But as the game crept closer, interest grew. And a few major storylines centered around Iowa's most dominant unit: its defense. It was the finale for mainstays like linebacker Jack Campbell, cornerback Riley Moss and potentially Seth Benson, Noah Shannon and others. Meanwhile, it was the first start for up-and-comers like five-star freshman Xavier Nwankpa at safety. And there was a unique challenge present, instead of projected first-round pick Will Levis who opted out to prep for the 2023 NFL Draft, Iowa's defense prepared to face three different Kentucky quarterbacks.

More:Leistikow's thoughts off Iowa's 21-0 win over Kentucky: A satisfying, entertaining finish

The pregame intrigue culminated in perhaps the best defensive performance of the season to put a cap on 2022. The Hawkeye defense scored two touchdowns, delivered its second shutout of the season and sent the senior class out on the high note they'd aimed for with a revenge win over Kentucky 21-0, who defeated Iowa in last season's Citrus Bowl.

Iowa's performance was historic on a few fronts: it was the first-ever shutout in Music City Bowl history and the first Big Ten bowl game shutout since 1999.

"If we could have written the script, today was perfect," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Just really happy, it's a testament to how our guys prepare and the work that they put in beyond the practice field. Those guys are really committed to it and there's the standard. I'm really proud of those guys."

Kentucky opted for true freshman quarterback Destin Wade against Iowa's defense. The first two plays showed some promise: 19 total yards and a first down. But any momentum quickly fizzled as the Hawkeyes suffocated the Wildcats' offense.

In total, 10 of Kentucky's 14 possessions resulted in a punt, the other three were two interceptions returned for touchdowns and two turnovers on downs. Statistically, the numbers were as near perfect as possible for Iowa's defense: 185 total yards allowed, 2.7 yards per play and the group allowed just two conversions on 18 third down tries.

Iowa defensive back Xavier Nwankpa (1) celebrates his touchdown with Cooper DeJean (3) against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.

Campbell led the way in his Hawkeye finale with a game-high 10 tackles, but the day belonged to Iowa's secondary, affectionately known as the 'DoughBoyz', which were highlighted by a trio of standouts heading into next season.

Nwankpa, starting in place of All-American Kaevon Merriweather (NFL opt-out), played as advertised Saturday. His electric pick-6, which extended Iowa's lead to 14-0 in the second quarter, was the highlight. But eight tackles and a pass breakup showed why the defensive coaches have praised him all season. Kentucky's longest pass play of the game was only 15 yards, Nwankpa handled the communication on the back end extremely well as Iowa limited big plays.

"We rolled back to cover three and it was just an overthrow, right place and right time," Nwankpa said. "I'd probably give myself a B (grade for his performance). It was a couple of mistakes I made and (there's) always room for improvement. So just focus on getting back after the new year... (Saturday's game) definitely set the bar for me of where I need to improve. So just keep making plays, having fun throughout the spring and getting ready for next fall."

More:'Xavier Nwankpa has arrived': Iowa freshman's pick-6 in Music City bowl wows Hawkeye football fans

Perhaps the biggest rising star this year, sophomore defensive back Cooper DeJean, got a kickstart for 2023 with another stellar performance Saturday. Shortly after Nwankpa's pick-6, DeJean joined the club with an interception return for a score just before halftime to put Iowa out in front by 21 points. It was DeJean's third pick-6 of the season and his fifth overall interception. He also made an impact on special teams with a 35-yard punt return and a pair of downed punts inside the 5-yard line.

DeJean earned Music City Bowl MVP honors for his performance which included seven total tackles.

"I think the MVP is more of a more of a team award," DeJean said. "Without these guys on the defense, I can't do what I'm able to do. Those guys were pressuring the quarterback all game. Same thing with Xavier's interception. So a lot of credit to the guys up front and everybody else on the defense."

The defensive domination continued through the second half as they pinned their ears back and attacked Kentucky's young quarterback. Iowa's defense totaled four sacks (by four different players) and nine tackles for loss. The Wildcats' offense had no answers, crossing midfield just one time all afternoon.

Iowa defensive back Dallas Craddieth holds up the championship trophy after defeating Kentucky in the TransPerfect Music City Bowl.

However, Iowa's defensive masterclass overshadowed another statistical eyesore by the Hawkeye offense, who posted just 206 total yards. Saturday's game was also the team's worst output of the season on third and fourth down conversions, a combined 0-13 performance.

More:Leistikow: Will Music City Bowl be Brian Ferentz's final game as Iowa's OC? We'll find out soon.

But it's worth noting that redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Labas did enough in his debut, connecting on 14 of his 24 passes for 139 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers. Ferentz credited Labas for not putting the ball in dangerous situations.

"Ultimately my focus was on getting the win," Labas said. "Going out there, everything was kind of my first rodeo, so I was just kind of focused on getting the win. That's pretty much it."

Iowa's offense will have a new look in 2023 with the additions of two Michigan transfers, quarterback Cade McNamara and tight end Erick All. But if the Hawkeyes want to compete for a Big Ten West title next season, more is needed on that side of the ball.

But the final game of the 2022 season belonged to Iowa's defense, the catalyst of this season's eight-win team. And with several pieces returning next season, Iowa fans can enter the off-season with optimism that the 2023 team can compete for a division crown.

Iowa defensive lineman Deontae Craig celebrates after defeating Kentucky 21-0 in the Music City Bowl on Saturday at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.