In what could have been a battle of seasoned quarterbacks, the Music City Bowl will now feature a pair of freshmen trying to prove themselves under center when Iowa and Kentucky meet on Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.

Third-stringer Joe Labas will draw the start for the Hawkeyes (7-5) after starter Spencer Petras underwent shoulder surgery and backup Alex Padilla entered the transfer portal.

Destin Wade likely will get the nod for the Wildcats (7-5), although Deuce Hogan and Kaiya Sheron are also expected to take snaps.

“I called my parents right away, and they were happy for me and excited, and I was excited for the opportunity,” Labas said. “It was kind of like a shock at first, like it would be for anyone.”

Labas will look to jumpstart an Iowa offense that averaged just 17.4 points per game in the regular season.

“We’ve added some stuff to the playbook that we haven’t ran ever,” Labas said. “It’s pretty good. I feel very confident about it, and I’m excited about it.”

The Hawkeyes have leaned heavily on their defense, which ranks among the best in the nation with an average of just 14.4 points conceded per game. That unit is headlined by linebacker Jack Campbell, who was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year after recording a team-high 118 tackles (52 solo, 66 assists) and two interceptions.

Those statistics aren’t a welcome sight for a Kentucky team that will be without two of its most important offensive weapons.

Starting quarterback Will Levis (2,406 passing yards, 19 TDs, 10 interceptions) and running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (175 carries, 904 yards, six TDs) have both opted to sit out as they prepare for the NFL draft.

Despite those absences, the Wildcats are confident that they can win their fifth consecutive bowl game, a streak that includes a 20-17 victory over Iowa in last season’s Citrus Bowl.

“Everybody who’s in that room playing in that bowl game wants to be there,” Kentucky offensive lineman Kenneth Horsey said. “There’s no guys thinking about leaving, there’s no more worrying about the future, there’s no more looking about the past.

“Everybody in there right now is 100 percent committed to making sure that the University of Kentucky is ready to go and we can win this bowl game.”

One of those players whose commitment is on full display is linebacker Jordan Wright, who, despite declaring for the draft, will still play in the Music City Bowl. Wright made 58 tackles this season, including 8.5 for loss, and also had a sack and an interception.

The Wildcats will be appearing in their second Music City Bowl under head coach Mark Stoops and their fifth since 2006. Iowa was supposed to appear in the Music City Bowl in 2020, but the event was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Prior to last season’s loss in the Citrus Bowl, the Hawkeyes had won three straight bowl games. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is 9-9 in bowl games, and a win on Saturday would tie him with Penn State’s Joe Paterno for the most bowl victories by a Big Ten coach.

–Field Level Media