Iowa postgame mailbag: Music City Bowl thoughts and looking ahead to 2023

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

NASHVILLE − A turbulent 2022 season for Iowa football ended at Nissan Stadium, where the Hawkeyes had a chance to finish the year on a high note with a Music City Bowl win over Kentucky.

A 7-5 record in the regular season fell short of preseason expectations, but the program didn't lack for motivation, something that was evident in a 21-0 win over Kentucky.

Saturday's contest had a little of everything: an emotional send-off for the senior class, the emergence of new stars and some history - it was the first shutout in Music City Bowl history.

"Crazy day," senior tight end Sam LaPorta said. "A lot of fond memories were made today. Just great being a part of this program. A lot of great people. Yeah, a lot of fond memories."

For Iowa, it marked a seventh straight season (excluding the 6-2 COVID year) of at least eight wins. Since 2015 the Hawkeyes hold a 70-30 overall record.

"I think it's significant,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. ”Winning in college football is not easy. … It just says a lot about our players. Like I said, these seniors feel an obligation to the program to uphold the standard, and that's what the game is all about."

Saturday's win gave Iowa's program a much-needed win and some positive momentum entering what will be a pivotal off-season for the program. Ferentz noted after the game that there's a huge leadership void created by the departure of the senior class. Additionally, the coaching staffs will be active transfer portal participants, and there are lingering questions about changes to the offensive staff and schemes.

Which brings us to our final Iowa football mailbag of the season. There was plenty to break down from Saturday's game while leaving some room for speculation about what's ahead in 2023.

Iowa got the win in dominating fashion, but let's talk about the offense

As has been the question all season, could Iowa's offense do enough to complement the other two units? For the first time in three seasons it wasn't Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla at quarterback but rather redshirt freshman Joe Labas in his first career start. The Hawkeyes' total offensive numbers: 206 total yards, 4.3 yards per play and seven points.

What's the performance evaluation? I think multiple things can be true at once.

Let's start with the positives, I really liked that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz leaned on Labas' arm in the first plays of the opening series. The first three plays on offense were Labas pass completions to three different targets (Diante Vines, LaPorta and Luke Lachey) for a combined 37 yards. That opening drive ended on the Kentucky 33-yard line after a failed fourth-down attempt. I would've preferred to see Iowa attempt a field goal, but I won't fault the aggressive attitude in a house money game.

Brian Ferentz took some heat Friday by saying he did the best he could with the offensive pieces this season, but that's exactly what he did on Saturday. With limited receivers available, Ferentz targeted the two tight ends throughout the game. LaPorta and Lachey had seven targets apiece and combined for 66% of Labas' passing yards and his one touchdown. Ferentz called a risk-averse game with Labas under center. The majority of his passes were within 10 yards in the air, and once it became clear that Kentucky wasn't a threat to score, Iowa didn't call any plays that would risk a turnover. Overall, fans should look at his 14-for-24, 139-yard, one-touchdown, no-turnovers performance and have confidence in his ability as the backup next year.

Iowa players hold hands as they swarm onto the field for the Music City Bowl on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.

Now for the bad. A lot of the problems that plagued Iowa throughout the season were present on Saturday.

To start, the Hawkeye offense didn't convert a third down (0-for-11) and was 0-for-2 on fourth down. Outside of the first drive, which was seven plays, Iowa didn't have an offensive possession with more than three plays until the 9:39 mark in the fourth quarter. The offense was limited with transfer-outs and injuries, but not being able to sustain drives was still a major issue.

And the extra bowl practices didn't produce much improvement from the offensive line. The guys up front did pass-protect better (one sack allowed) but couldn't establish any momentum running the ball. Iowa totaled just 67 rushing yards, averaged just 3.2 yards per rush, and its longest run of the day (a 17-yard gain by Jaziun Patterson) came in the final moments of the game. He was the team's leading rusher with 23 yards on four carries.

The question that looms now revolves around Brian Ferentz's job as offensive coordinator. Was that his final game in that role? I'm leaning toward yes, but either way Iowa's offense needs a complete overhaul of its schemes. New pieces are on the way. Will Iowa's offense make the necessary changes to avoid being ranked near the bottom of the nation again?

Is Cooper DeJean locked in at cornerback? What's the outlook for next season's secondary?

In a masterpiece by Iowa's defense, the three best players (according to Pro Football Focus grades) were in the secondary: Cooper DeJean (87.8), Xavier Nwankpa (83.5) and Sebastian Castro (81.4). DeJean, the Music City Bowl MVP, and Nwankpa, in his first career start, each had a pick-six and finished in the top three in total tackles. They provided a promising snapshot of what next season could hold.

Several weeks ago, defensive coordinator Phil Parker was asked about DeJean's optimal position, to which he said Cash, Iowa's safety/linebacker hybrid. But due to injuries this season DeJean primarily played cornerback and had an All-Big Ten season ... and that's likely where he'll stay.

The thought of DeJean (who finished with five interceptions and three pick-sixes) guarding the other team's No. 1 receiver is enticing. Pair that with the return of Jermari Harris, a projected breakout star in 2022 who missed the entire season, and that's as formidable a duo as you'll find in the Big Ten. And DeJean not moving back to Cash is softened by the fact that Castro has emerged as a reliable player.

Kentucky quarterback Destin Wade (15) is sacked by Iowa defensive back Sebastian Castro during the second half of Saturday's Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn.

Castro earned a reputation for his tackling ability, but his progression as a pass defender has been an underrated storyline. It was on display Saturday, as Kentucky targeted him throughout the game but he played passes well and finished with two pass breakups. Combined with five tackles, it was the most complete game of his career.

"They tested him, they went after him," Kirk Ferentz said. "I thought he played great. That guy was fast, the guyhe was covering ... He played a lot of snaps all season, but he just keeps improving. He is a tough, hard-nosed guy, and he cares and works hard. He was a factor in the game certainly."

In the back end, Nwankpa flashed his superstar potential on Saturday, and free safety Quinn Schulte was so steady that it almost went unnoticed. Both will return next season and figure to take steps forward as each player's confidence grows.

DeJean, Harris, Castro, Nwankpa and Schulte: your 2023 starting secondary. That's a group that can be one of the best in the country.

"I think we've got a lot of talent in our (defensive back) room," DeJean said. "I think we played well (on Saturday). Obviously, there's always things you can continue to improve on. But the stuff that those guys are doing in the games, you see it in practice all the time. They've been making those plays for a while now, and they made the most of it (on Saturday)."

Is it too early to look ahead at what Iowa could look like in 2023?

Iowa received some good news in the week leading up to the game when wide receiver Nico Ragaini, the most experienced player on the team, announced he was returning for a sixth season. The good news continued postgame with All-America punter Tory Taylor announced that he will return. One reason Taylor opted to say was a belief in what could be next season.

"It's going to be a special year," Taylor said. "We've kind of got a young group, obviously bringing in a pretty special quarterback (Michigan transfer Cade McNamara) and a couple of big transfers. I really think this team can go far, and I just really want to be a part of it."

As the new year begins, how do we size up the 2023 Iowa Hawkeyes? Let's examine.

I thought Kirk Ferentz's remarks about a leadership void was telling. There are so many prominent figures departing, including the team's four captains (LaPorta, Jack Campbell, Kaevon Merriweather and Riley Moss) and potentially more such as Seth Benson, Joe Evans, Noah Shannon and John Waggoner. Who will step up next and fill those shoes? That's one of the biggest off-season questions.

Iowa's Cooper DeJean is interviewed after winning the Music City Bowl MVP award Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.

Talent wise, fans should be ecstatic about special teams with the return of every starting specialist and returner from this season. Defensively, the linebacker room is hardest hit by departures, but it'll be insulated by a strong defensive line and the good-as-it-gets secondary.

Which brings us back to the offense.

McNamara is a considerable upgrade at quarterback. His former Michigan teammate and All-Big Ten tight end Erick All should pair nicely with Lachey, and Iowa's bringing back its top two running backs in Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams with an emerging Patterson. But there's considerable work to do on the perimeter, both in development of the current roster and bringing in instant-impact players via the transfer portal.

The good news is that the schedule is more manageable. In other words: no Michigan, no Ohio State.

I believe there's considerable pressure on Iowa's team in 2023. Expectations will be high after a 2021 Big Ten West title and what many feel like was a lost opportunity at the 2022 crown. And the stakes are much higher next season. It's the last year for divisions, so it's likely Iowa's best shot to return to the Big Ten championship game for the foreseeable future.

The pieces are in places for a 2023 run but it will be a critical off-season from the coaching staff down to the players. In the days to come Iowa will sift through the transfer portal and wait on current players' NFL Draft decisions. Enjoy the postseason win, but know that preparations for 2023 have already begun.