Photo by University of Iowa Athletics (@HawkeyeFootball on X)
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn- No. 21 Tennessee (8-4, 4-4) concludes its 2023 campaign with a trip to Orlando to take on No. 17 Iowa (10-3, 7-3) in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium Monday.
The game kicks off at 1 p.m. ET and airs on ABC.
The Vols and Hawkeyes have met just three times before, and two of those meetings were in bowls. Dave Flemming, Brock Osweiler, and Kayla Burton will have the game call.
In the first meeting, the Hawkeyes won the 1982 Peach Bowl 28-22 against the Vols. Hawkeyes quarterback Chuck Long torched the Vols secondary for over 300 yards passing, and Hawkeyes running back Ronnie Harmon had two receiving touchdowns.
Five years later, the Vols won 23-22 in a season-opening ranked matchup in New Jersey. The game featured three different Hawkeye quarterbacks, a young Mark Stoops in the Hawkeyes secondary, and the coming out party for Vols running back Reggie Cobb.
The result of the third meeting was a dominant 45-28 victory in the 2014 Gator Bowl. The Hawkeyes once again found themselves experimenting with two quarterbacks, and the Vols scored four unanswered touchdowns to open the game, leading by as much as 35.
From a record standpoint, the Hawkeyes are better this season than they were in 2014.
The Hawkeyes won the Big Ten West division in its final year of existence, but were shut out by No. 1 Michigan in the Big Ten Championship. The Hawkeyes’ two regular season losses were a 31-point shutout in Happy Valley and a 12-10 home defeat against Minnesota.
But from an offensive standpoint, the Hawkeyes could use 2014 quarterback CJ Beathard right now.
After a miserable 2022 season, a clause was put into offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s contract that he must average 25 points per game in the 2023 season.
The Hawkeyes rank dead last in FBS in total yards (3105), yards per play (4.02), and yards per game (238.8). They are near the bottom in touchdowns (22) and in points per game (16.6).
There was hope the output would improve with the addition of Michigan transfer Cade McNamara at quarterback. McNamara was lost for the season in the win at Michigan State to end September, and the Hawkeyes pivoted to Deacon Hill.
Hill transferred in from Wisconsin last season. He has thrown for just over 1,000 yards, five touchdowns, and six interceptions in 2023.
The tight end position has always been a staple of the Hawkeyes’ passing attack, and this season is no exception. However, like quarterback, tight end has been hit hard by injury.
Erick All leads the Hawkeyes in receiving yards and touchdowns with 299 and three. All has not played since the Wisconsin game in October, so Addison Ostrenga has stepped into the starting role. Ostrenga has 178 yards and two scores on the team.
The best of the healthy receivers for the Hawkeyes is Nico Ragaini. Ragaini has 252 yards through the air but is yet to log a touchdown this season.
On the ground, the Hawkeyes have turned to Leshon Williams for production. Williams has run for 804 yards this season, turning in three 100-yard performances. Williams scored his only touchdown against Wisconsin.
Every member of the Hawkeyes offensive line has started for multiple seasons now.
Tackles Mason Richman and Connor Colby have at the very least appeared in all 13 games this season. Center Logan Jones missed the Nebraska game due to injury but has been a full go otherwise.
Left guard Nick DeJong missed a couple of games this season, but he has been an important piece over the last three seasons. Right guard Rusty Feth spent the last four seasons at Miami (Ohio) and has appeared in all 13 games for the Hawkeyes.
While the Hawkeyes offense ranks at or near the bottom in many metrics, the same cannot be said about the defense.
Despite some turmoil at the beginning of the season with starting defensive tackle Noah Shannon, the front has been stout for the Hawkeyes.
The right side of the line is two-deep with Joe Evans and Ethan Hurkett on the end and Logan Lee and Yahya Black at tackle. The left side is inhabited by tackle Aaron Graves and end Deontae Craig.
The linebackers are Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson. Higgins has recorded a monstrous 155 tackles on the season. Jackson transferred in from Virginia in the offseason, and he is second on the team in tackles with 99.
Like the front, the secondary has been productive for the Hawkeyes.
However, the Hawkeyes will be without a key component in Orlando. Two-time first team All-Big Ten and All-American corner Cooper DeJean will not play in the bowl for the Hawkeyes. Deshaun Lee will likely fill in here as he recorded 31 tackles and three defended passes this season.
Jermari Harris has manned the other corner for the Hawkeyes all season. Harris dealt with a season-ending injury in 2022, but he has made a mark this season with eight pass breakups.
Nickel Sebastian Castro is in his third year as a starter. Castro is the secondary’s leader in tackles and interceptions with 61 and three.
Xavier Nwankpa is in his first season as the Hawkeyes’ starting strong safety and has recorded 41 tackles this season. Free safety Quinn Schulte is another trusty veteran in the secondary, logging 60 tackles for the Hawkeyes.
Special teams is an area in which the Hawkeyes can showcase some entertainment.
If the Ray Guy Award is the measuring stick, then the Hawkeyes have the best punter in the country. Tory Taylor’s frequent use allows for him to be the best in the country, punting for 4,119 yards and an average of 47.9 yards per punt.
Kicker Drew Stevens has taken a small step back after his second team All-Big 10 season in 2022. Stevens is 18 for 26 on the season with two misses in attempts under 40 yards, but he is six of 12 from 40 yards and beyond.
Kaden Wetjen will return the kicks and likely punts for the Hawkeyes. Wetjen is averaging 24 yards per return and is yet to return a kick for a score this season. DeJean handled punt returns all season, so Wetjen is the Hawkeyes’ best filler there.