Leistikow: As accomplished seniors depart, promising stories emerge for Iowa football to close 2022

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

NASHVILLE − Bowl games still matter. At least to those at the heart of the Iowa football program.

And a bevy of reasons why they matter were on display during the Hawkeyes’ 21-0 rout of Kentucky in Saturday’s Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium.

They matter for the team veterans and program stalwarts like cornerback Riley Moss, who in his 51st career game helped Iowa stifle Kentucky's passing game and record the first-ever bowl shutout by a Big Ten team over one from the SEC. Like linebacker Seth Benson, who had seven tackles in his 48th career game. Like linebacker Jack Campbell, the Butkus Award winner who had 10 tackles in his 44th and final game as a Hawkeye. They, and other Hawkeye seniors like Noah Shannon, John Waggoner and Monte Pottebaum, had the opportunity to finish their Hawkeye careers with a win, helping to partially wash away the taste of a 24-17 loss to Nebraska in the regular-season finale.

They matter a lot to a guy like Sam LaPorta, who sat out that Nebraska game with a knee injury and hobbled to midfield on senior day at Kinnick Stadium after meniscus surgery. He desperately wanted to play one more time in the black and gold. And he was able to recover to play in his 46th and final game at Iowa, catching five balls for 56 yards and even taking three snaps as a Wildcat quarterback in a memorable performance.

Kirk Ferentz got emotional after Saturday's 21-0 win against Kentucky. Here, he hugs fifth-year senior Riley Moss. A robust senior class with so many memories moves on, and a young crop of talent blossomed in December.

“I mean, you should have seen me coming off the field. I was crying like a little baby,” LaPorta said in his postgame media session, by which point he was beaming and cracking jokes with a Music City Bowl champions T-shirt over the top of his grass-stained jersey. “Just really emotional. You pour a lot into this program. I said this a couple of weeks ago, but the more you put it in, the more it gives back to you.

“When you are being recruited (you wonder), ‘What can this program, what can this team do for me?’ I think that's the exact opposite once you actually get there. The more you invest, the more the program will do for you.”

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These bowl games matter for a guy like Dallas Craddieth, a fifth-year senior safety who intends to transfer to a smaller school next year but wanted to suit up one final time with his Hawkeye brothers. The acclaimed former four-star recruit never started a game for Iowa, but he made a hard hit on kickoff coverage against the Wildcats. That moment stood out for head coach Kirk Ferentz to mention it in his opening postgame remarks, and it will stick with Craddieth for the rest of his life.

As for Ferentz, he’s still old-school about bowl games. This was his 20th bowl bid as Iowa’s coach. He’s always viewed the developmental stage in December as essential to his program.

And, boy, was that on display Saturday with so many young guys emerging as promising stories.

Let’s start with quarterback "Broadway Joe" Labas (LaPorta's nickname, a reference to Nashville's bustling Broadway music scene). A guy that had mostly taken scout-team reps for 1½ years as a Hawkeye but was thrust into the starting quarterback job Saturday. Ferentz watched Labas fumble his first snap of pregame warmups and was a little nervous. But the coach would soon see poised, turnover-free ball and that Labas “has a little juice to him, too.”

Without this bowl game, Iowa doesn’t have those three weeks to bring Labas along like it did. He’ll now go into the spring as incoming transfer Cade McNamara’s top backup with more confidence.

Let’s continue with Xavier Nwankpa. The true freshman safety wouldn’t have gotten his first career start without this bowl opportunity and strong safety Kaevon Merriweather’s choice to opt-out to prepare for the NFL draft. The highly acclaimed Southeast Polk alum rose to the occasion in December, with defensive coordinator Phil Parker calling him one of the top stories of the month. Then on Saturday, Nwankpa’s smooth-looking 52-yard interception return touchdown gave Iowa a 14-0 lead in the second quarter and essentially cemented the Hawkeyes’ eighth win of the season.

“Definitely it sets the bar for me, where I have to go, where I have to improve from,” Nwankpa said. “So, just keep making plays, having fun throughout the spring and getting ready for next fall.”

Let’s continue with cash defender Sebastian Castro and cornerback Cooper DeJean, who might’ve been the two most impactful Hawkeyes of many Saturday. DeJean was a bit player a year ago, but emerged during Citrus Bowl prep and played a role late in that 20-17 loss. On Saturday, he was named the Music City Bowl MVP after several difference-making special-teams plays and a 14-yard interception return touchdown that gave Iowa a 21-0 lead.

The prospect of getting cornerback Jermari Harris back from injury to play opposite DeJean next year, along with Nwankpa and Quinn Schulte at safety and Castro at cash, is suddenly an extremely promising development. The emergence of Nwankpa in December makes that excitement real.

“I'm not saying he's Cooper, but if you remember, Cooper was not a household name a year ago,” Ferentz said. “So, again, that's what we get to watch. You watch guys get confidence.”

The defensive line should be loaded next year, even if Lukas Van Ness turns pro. Deontae Craig, Yahya Black and Aaron Graves are emerging young stars, and Logan Lee and perhaps Joe Evans will be back to lead the room.

The special teams will be elite again, with first-team all-American punter Tory Taylor announcing his return for one more season.

Coming back:Tory Taylor reveals he'll stay at Iowa next season

Iowa looks strong at running back and tight end on offense, and the McNamara arrival combined with Labas' emergence puts the Hawkeyes on more solid footing at quarterback.

There are still plenty of offseason question marks, particularly after a shaky offensive-line performance again Saturday. Uncertainty at coordinator and wide receiver will have answers in due time.

But this Saturday in Nashville was about getting the win.

There was simply a lot for the Hawkeyes to feel good about, in the moment and for the future.

“I know the program is in great hands," LaPorta said. "These young guys are really going to spring forward.”

So, yeah, bowl games still matter.

“Just really happy for our guys. Especially our seniors,” Ferentz said. “What a way to send them off. It's been a great group, and I can't thank them enough for all they've done.”

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.