Despite key offensive weapons absent, Cats travel to Nashville full of optimism


Isabel McSwain

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops high fives fans during Cat Walk before the Kentucky vs. Louisville football game on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Luke Fetzer, Reporter

Kentucky football wrapped up its final practice on Thursday before the team is set to face off against Iowa in the Music City Bowl on New Year’s Eve. 

The 2022 Music City Bowl marks Kentucky’s sixth appearance in the bowl as it looks to even its record to 3-3 with a win over the Hawkeyes.

The Cats also look to extend their postseason winning streak to five games, having won the last four against Penn State (2018), Virginia Tech (2019), NC State (2021) and Iowa (2022).

All eyes heading into the matchup will likely be on the Cats’ offense with quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. both deciding against playing in their final collegiate game and instead choosing to remain healthy for the NFL draft and combine. 

Head coach Mark Stoops didn’t specify which quarterback would step into the massive hole left by Levis, but did say that he expects the starter, whomever it may be, to step up and perform. 

“This is their opportunity,” Stoops said after the conclusion of Thursday’s practice. “They have to take command obviously and you gotta make plays. We have to play really well around that quarterback, no matter who it is, but we have good players around them and they just gotta go in there and do their job.” 

The official UK depth chart lists three quarterbacks: freshman Kaiya Sheron, freshman Destin Wade and sophomore Deuce Hogan.

Sheron was named the starter against South Carolina earlier this season when Levis sustained an injury the week before. The game saw Sheron complete 15-27 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, though the effort wasn’t enough to find victory against the Gamecocks. 

Filling Rodriguez Jr.’s shoes will be the partnership of JuTahn McClain and La’Vell Wright. 

Freshman wide receivers Barion Brown and Dane Key also commented about their excitement and eagerness to catch passes from a new quarterback after a month without football. 

“We’re gonna show trust in all of them, whichever one plays and can’t wait to find out, we don’t know as receivers, but we’re just gonna go out there and do what we do,” Key said. “I feel like a lot of people on the outside like to look in and say there’s pressure going to a bowl game every year, but I just look at it and the team looks at it as going out there every week and prove what we can do and you know, and we’re gonna prove that we can win games.” 

Brown, an explosive playmaker who finished the regular season with 45 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns, felt just as eager.

“It feels good knowing that me and all my brothers are on the same page, you see us out here having fun I mean, we wanna be out here, we wanna do this well, everybody’s out here working hard, grinding hard, and most importantly having fun, that’s all coach preach about,” Brown said. “My boys, Dane and all of us playing around just make me feel good, knowing that we all on the same page and we all have the same goals in mind.”  

Perhaps another interesting point of discussion is the fact that the bowl matchup against Iowa marks the second consecutive time the pair have faced off. 

Last season the then No. 18 Cats traveled to Orlando to face off against No. 23 Iowa in the Citrus Bowl in which Stoops’ men edged out a narrow 20-17 victory. That matchup marked the first time the two programs had ever faced off against one another. 

Now, almost a year later, the two teams will square off again. While it is rare to see a rematch between two teams in back-to-back bowl games, Stoops believes that the preparation and mindset going into Saturday’s game remains the same as it would for any other game. 

“The prep is the same, it’s not like we play Iowa very much,” Stoops said. “I have a lot of respect for Coach Ferentz and Iowa, and both teams are gonna go out and compete to win.” 

Defensive coordinator Brad White also looks to prepare his defense for another showdown against the Iowa offense, which put up 384 yards (211 passing, 173 rushing) against the Cats last year.

Unlike the offensive side of the ball, White still has many key defensive weapons at his disposal including JJ Weaver, Jacquez Jones, Jordan Wright and Octavious Oxendine.

Still, many mostly unfamiliar faces will be on display for the fans with White praising the likes of Tre’vonn Rybka, D’Eryk Jackson, Luke Fulton and Martez Thrower. 

“Between (DeAndre) Square and Jacquez, they’ve taken a lot of snaps here over the last several years and it’s those young guys’ time to take over and excited to see what they can do,” White said. 

Jones, a star linebacker, is set to play his last game for the Wildcats in Nashville and is hoping to make the most of it. 

“I ain’t got a chance to play last year cause I was out with an injury,” Jones said. “I’ve been out the whole season with an injury so coming to play this game it means a lot to me, and it means a lot to everybody else on the team knowing that we got another opportunity and it’s our last time we’ll be together so we gotta make it count.”

The showdown in Nashville will be broadcast live on ABC at noon EST.