ORLANDO — Before any dropped passes, booming punts or big sacks, the Citrus Bowl’s sponsor Cheez-It presented its mascot at midfield with much fanfare.
Almost as quickly as Ched-Z rose from a massive replica of a Cheez-It box at midfield to upbeat music and pyrotechnics, the mascot was lowered back into the Cheez-It box.
The quick rise and lowering of Ched-Z could serve as a metaphor for the Hawkeyes’ performance in the game that followed.
After an early glimmer of hope, the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes fell into a two-touchdown deficit in the second quarter and could not catch up, suffering a 35-0 loss to No. 21 Tennessee at Camping World Stadium.
It was the Hawkeyes’ biggest bowl loss in program history.
“Disappointing today,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It never feels good after a loss.”
The glimmer came as Iowa had a red-zone opportunity in the first quarter while the game was tied 0-0. The Hawkeyes reached the Tennessee 4-yard line before Deacon Hill threw an interception into double coverage.
“When you do get good field position and then take it down inside and give yourself a chance to come out with a touchdown, and do not, that is not good,“ Ferentz said. ”The worst offense was not getting any points. Big difference between three and seven — it is obviously four — just to start building some momentum.“
The Hawkeyes (10-4) did not reach Tennessee (9-4) territory again until the fourth quarter.
The Iowa offense averaged a mere 2.8 yards per play. Hill went 7-of-18 passing for 56 yards with two interceptions and one fumble lost before being benched in favor of true freshman Marco Lainez.
Tennessee’s James Pierce Jr. returned one of Hill’s interceptions 52 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“We started Deacon and played Deacon the majority of the game; we thought that gave us our best chance to win,” Ferentz said. “At some point, you just felt like making a change would be the best thing.”
The Hawkeyes picked up 113 rushing yards while averaging 3.1 yards per carry.
The leading rusher was Lainez, who picked up 51 yards on the ground on some electrifying runs after entering the game in the fourth quarter.
Lainez did not have the same success throwing the ball as he did running, going 2-of-7 for 4 yards.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s rushing attack thrived against Iowa’s defense. Dylan Sampson led the Volunteers with 133 rushing yards while averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava was responsible for the first three rushing touchdowns of the game. He finished the day with 27 rushing yards — a number dampened by six Iowa sacks, four of which were attributed to Joe Evans.
“He is a very mobile guy, and you were able to see that today,” Evans said of Iamaleava.
Iamaleava, who was making his first career start, went 12-for-19 for 151 passing yards. His 18-yard pass to McCallan Castles in the fourth quarter was his second career touchdown pass.
“We could have honestly handled their tempo better,” Evans said of the Tennessee offense. “We tried to emulate that in practice, and it’s a tough thing to do when they’re getting a play off every 10 seconds, every 15 seconds.”
Tennessee’s 35 points were the most the Iowa defense has given up this season.
“We asked a lot from this defense this year, and I’m extreley proud,” linebacker Jay Higgins said. “I don’t think this one game is going to change how I view those guys.”
Tennessee won despite having 24 players out because of transfers, opt-outs or injuries, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Monday marked Iowa’s third shutout loss this season against a ranked foe in three tries. The Hawkeyes have not scored in their last 14 quarters against ranked opponents.
It also was Brian Ferentz’s final game as Iowa’s offensive coordinator. His offenses scored three points in the last 10 quarters combined.
The Hawkeyes ended the 2023 season with a 10-4 record. It was the seventh 10-plus-win season during the Kirk Ferentz era.
“At the end of the day, we’re a 10-win team, and that’s a special thing,” linebacker Nick Jackson said. “That doesn’t happen a lot in college football.”