Breaking Down the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl

If your bowl-season shopping list includes drama, late-game heroics, and come-from-behind victories, all gift-wrapped in an assortment of heartwarming backstories, then your cart overflowed with the 2022 Vrbo Citrus Bowl.

Close as it was, the final score — Kentucky 20, Iowa 17 — barely hinted at the richness of details that went into making the 75th annual rumble in Orlando among the most satisfying of all the postseason tussles, including — yes, including — the College Football Playoff games.

That’s sometimes the problem with box scores. Their “Just The Facts” smack overlooks the nuances that make a game such as this one stick in the mind. The head coach scheming against his alma mater. The top-15 team without a starting quarterback. The longtime also-ran bearing the weight of the Southeastern Conference’s proud, if bruised, reputation. The Big 10 runner-up, reeling after a conference-championship-game pasting by Michigan, searching for a handhold for 2022.

Excellent narratives, all. And that doesn’t even account for, weeks ahead of the start of the Orlando bowl season, the $75,000 (a grand for every year the Citrus Bowl has been around) donated by Florida Citrus Sports and Vrbo to a relief telethon for Western Kentucky communities clobbered by deadly tornadoes in early December.

No, you don’t get FCS CEO Steve Hogan’s splendid gesture to Kentucky United for Tornado Relief in a cold reading of the final score, either.

Played in unseasonably muggy conditions before a live crowd of 50,769 at Camping World Stadium who shrugged off COVID-19 Omicron variant concerns, and a peak of 8.6 million television viewers (up 35% from the previous year’s matchup of Northwestern and Auburn), the game was a contrast of dominant halves.

Except for a first-quarter field goal by Iowa’s Caleb Shudak, Kentucky owned the first half. The Wildcats scored on their first possession, marching 80 yards on 13 plays to go up 7-0. Making it look easy, quarterback Will Levis, a junior graduate transfer from Penn State, completed all five pass attempts, including the capper, a 5-yard touchdown strike to Rodriguez.

But for all their statistical dominance, two subsequent deep Wildcat probes produced only field goals — of 31 and 27 yards — by fifth-year senior, Lou Groza Award finalist, and MBA student Matt Ruffolo.

Despite the 10-point edge, Stoops knew the game was close — too close. “[O]ne of the last things I said walking out of halftime was ‘this is going 60 minutes.’ I said to them ‘They’re not going anywhere. I know them; however, we’re not either.’ ”

Stoops proved prophetic, twice.

But for all that went before, for the winning Kentucky Wildcats, a comeback for the ages came down to, well, comebacks for the ages:

  • The wide receiver, Wan’Dale Robinson, who came home from two seasons at Nebraska to finish his record-smashing career by sparking UK’s game-winning touchdown.
  • The running back who wouldn’t be denied, Christopher Rodriguez, who came out of a tackle in the backfield for a 6-yard score to put the Wildcats ahead with 1:43 left.
  • And the linebacker, DeAndre Square, who came out of the locker room and off the sidelines on a gimpy ankle to cradle the game-clinching interception in the final minute.

Iowa was driving then, closing in on field goal and overtime range, when a corner blitz forced a hurried throw, and there was Square on an ankle and a half making quick calculations.

“I am like, ‘Whoa, there is the ball,’ ” Square said. “I was like, ‘Okay, do I just let it fall or am I close enough to catch it?’ ” A man of action, Square mustered himself, dove, stretched, felt the smack of leather, and saw, with barely believing eyes, Wildcat history settling in his hands.

Declared the hobbled hero, “It fit perfectly.”

The improbable moment put a gilt-edged frame around the philosophy — Blue Grit — Coach Mark Stoops is building at Kentucky: six straight winning seasons, an emphatic and cleansing end to the Florida Gators’ 31-game head-to-head win streak, two 10-win seasons in four years, discussed as an SEC East contender.

“We’ve won a lot of close games,” Stoops said. “I think it comes down to our players caring about each other, having the toughness, having a resiliency about you, respecting the game.”

If UK’s tasty football harvest is the product of seeds sowed like rows of corn during Stoops’ years playing for Hayden Fry at Iowa, neither he nor the rest of the Hawkeye alumni association (which includes estimable coaching brothers Bob and Mike) are going to complain.

“The experience with Coach Hayden Fry and all the assistant coaches, the people of Iowa, everybody was just so good to us during our time there,” Stoops told reporters during a break from Citrus Bowl prep. “It helped shape a lot of what we became.”

“All three of them were all cut from the same cloth,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, an offensive assistant under Fry. “They just looked at football a little differently, and most college football players do. It was in the blood and that’s something they grew up with.”

Now that approach to football — respect for the game and your teammates, giving it your all, being better than you thought you could be — are reaping results at Kentucky. A former top prospect, Robinson, came through the transfer portal to help make something special. A Penn State quarterback, benched, coincidentally, a year earlier against Iowa, finds the bluegrass greener. And a linebacker with an ankle so sore he couldn’t trust himself to backpedal into pass coverage without landing on his bottom hauls in the game-sealing interception.

“I was ruled out; I wasn’t even supposed to come back in,” Square said. “But Coach Stoops had talked about doing something bigger than yourself and all I could think about is my teammates. I saw the way the game was going and I just felt like I needed to step in no matter how I was feeling.”

For the Hawkeyes, who all but triumphed on pure Iowa stubbornness, the game shed light on improvement where it was needed most: The offensive line. Hawkeye linemen were young, inexperienced, and slow to improve throughout the 2021 campaign.

Then came the Citrus Bowl, and this apparent weakness took a turn for the much, much better. With starting running back Tyler Goodson (1,151 rushing yards in 2021) opting out of the game, the Hawkeyes nonetheless plowed through Kentucky for 173 yards and a touchdown on 5.8 yards per carry — an especially impressive performance considering one of the key bowl-week sidebars involved Ferentz’s reluctance to name either of his inconsistent quarterbacks the starter.

Ultimately, the job found on-and-off junior starter Spencer Petras, who rewarded Ferentz’s confidence with two first-half interceptions. But he found sufficient steadiness to craft two second-half touchdowns, the second — a 36-yard misdirection screen pass to receiver Sam LaPorta — giving Iowa a 17-13 lead with 10:54 left in the game.

“I got escorted into the end zone,” said LaPorta, who finished with a career-high 122 yards on seven catches. “I didn’t get touched until I got down there. That’s a credit to the big guys hustling down the field.”

And that might have been that, except for one last dose of the magic that had marked Robinson’s return to the Bluegrass State, where the Frankfort native had been Kentucky’s No. 1 high school player in 2018, after two seasons at Nebraska.

“You talk to Wan’Dale and he will tell you a lot of things about not only the receiver position but football in general that the average fan will not know and the average player will not know,” quarterback Levis said during bowl-week prep. “He just kind of gets it. It’s like something you’ve got to work for but it’s also natural ability and natural instinct, I think. … He is just someone I can trust throwing the ball to all around and he is a great player to have.”

Robinson set the UK record for receptions in the regular season (94), but, in what was to become his final game in a brief homecoming, he rose, in a single play, to legend status against Iowa.

With the game on the line and a sackful of nice, if not meaningful, stats to his name, Robinson electrified the Wildcats, claimed Citrus Bowl MVP honors, and made himself Kentucky’s homecoming king in a single, heart-stopping instant.

With just about two minutes left and Kentucky at its 47-yard-line, Robinson worked a 20-yard out pattern, gathered Levis’ feathery toss, then, in something out of a video game, threw in a start-stop-start, tackle-dodging dash up the sideline to the Iowa 1. Those 12 did-you-see-that? seconds may be the greatest Kentucky kernel this side of Jack Givens’ 41 points in the NCAA basketball championship game of 1978.

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Robinson said. “It is just more of instincts. You just go out there and do it. I can’t really tell you how to do it or what to do. It is just God-given, I guess.”

“[He] just plays so hard and makes such competitive plays in big moments,” Stoops said when it was over, still scented from his blue Gatorade bath. “That’s what you need to win a bowl game and to beat quality opponents. You need your guys to step up and make plays when you need them and he certainly did that.”

A false start later — because the game needed even more spectacle — Rodriguez shed a tackler five yards deep in the backfield and met no further resistance until he’d crossed the goal line.

Rodriguez’s bookend touchdown left the Wildcat defense to Hoover things up, which Square, against trainers’ wishes, ultimately saw to. His unlikely interception put a bow on a package of heated, heroic theater that the final score couldn’t begin to describe.

Blue Grit, indeed.

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