Nov 25, 2023; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Nico Iamaleava (8) passes the ball against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

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Iowa sets sights on Nico Iamaleava, Tennessee in Citrus Bowl

A quarterback making his first career start would not likely list Iowa among ideal opening opponents.

But that’s the reality for Tennessee’s Nico Iamaleava as he leads the No. 21 Volunteers against the No. 17 Hawkeyes in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day at Orlando.

Sixth-year senior Joe Milton III opted out of the Citrus Bowl on Wednesday, which elevated the highly touted Iamaleava into the starting role.

Iamaleava attempted 26 passes as a freshman this season and attempts to solve an Iowa defense that entered the bowl season ranked fourth in scoring defense (13.2 points per game) and fifth in total defense (274.8 yards per game).

“I finally get to go out there and showcase my talents as a starter. It should be fun,” Iamaleava said.

“It’s my first start and it’s going against a top-5 defense, I’m ready for the challenge. And I’m ready to go out there and compete with my brothers.”

Tennessee (8-4) is averaging 31.5 points per game but certainly will be hard-pressed to approach that output with Milton and running backs Jaylen Wright (1,013 rushing yards) and Jabari Small (475) all skipping the game. Dylan Sampson (471 rushing, team-high eight total touchdowns) will be the main back.

Meanwhile, Iowa (10-3) allowed 16 or fewer points in 11 of its 13 games and allowed one touchdown or less 10 times. The stellar performance earned defensive coordinator Phil Parker the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.

Parker is in his 12th season as defensive coordinator and his 25th campaign on the Hawkeyes’ staff.

“He is one of a kind, and I am so happy that he has been by my side in this program throughout the past 25 years,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Star linebacker Jay Higgins has 155 tackles, second nationally, and needs 17 to pass Andre Jackson (171 in 1972) as Iowa’s single-season leader.

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has broken down the Hawkeyes’ defense and is impressed.

“It’s not just the numbers that say they’ve got a really good defense, you can watch the film. They’re dialed in,” Heupel said. “They make you earn it. They don’t give up a bunch of big plays, that’s in the pass game and in the run game.

“They’re really good on third downs, getting off the football field. They adjust during the course of the ball game extremely well to the things that they’re seeing.”

Higgins also supplied great news to the Hawkeyes by announcing he will return in 2024. Iowa safety Sebastian Castro (team-best three interceptions) said he will announce his decision “a day or two after the game.”

Castro also said that facing Iamaleava instead of Milton doesn’t affect the Hawkeyes’ preparations.

“The game plan not’s changing,” Castro said. “They spread out, and they like to throw the ball.”

The Volunteers’ four losses came by an average of 21 points despite the fact they allow just 22 points per game.

The defense gave up 98 points over the last three games but could get well quickly against an Iowa offense that was shut out twice and scored 20 or fewer points nine times. The Hawkeyes average just 16.6 points and 239.3 yards per game.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, son of the head coach, will be running the offense for the final time after the school announced this would be his final season in late October.

Quarterback Deacon Hill has passed for 1,096 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions since replacing Cade McNamara, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in Iowa’s fifth game.

The Hawkeyes don’t have a single player with 30 receptions or 300 receiving yards.

Iowa is 18-16-1 in bowl games and has won four of its last five. The Volunteers are 29-25.

This is the fourth all-time meeting. Tennessee holds a 2-1 edge and won the last meeting, 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl (Gator Bowl) following the 2014 season.

–Field Level Media

Field Level Media
Sport Writer & Editor
FLM has a North American focus while tying into regional and hyper-local resources – providing the ability to distribute compelling content through the writing of professional journalists. As the U.S. sports content provider to dozens of digital and print media publishers through strategic partnerships with the likes of Reuters and Nielsen Sports, FLM covers the nuts and bolts with a breaking news desk and game event coverage.

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