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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knew from experience that his vaunted defense would be challenged trying to contain dynamic Kentucky receiver Wan’Dale Robinson in the Citrus Bowl.
With the game on the line, Ferentz could only look on in horror as Robinson made the most spectacular play of the day to help No. 25 Kentucky rally past No. 17 Iowa 20-17 on Saturday.
Robinson made three defenders miss on a 52-yard catch-and-run, setting up Chris Rodriguez’s 6-yard touchdown run that put the Wildcats back ahead with 1:48 to play. Kentucky (10-3) rallied after squandering a 13-3 halftime lead.
Robinson finished with 10 receptions for 170 yards, his second time burning Iowa. He had nine catches for 75 yards in 2020 when he played for Nebraska.
“He’s just a really explosive and dynamic football player,” Ferentz said of Robinson, who was voted the game’s MVP. “He ended up being a factor on the back end. He was good when we faced him last time, and he’s probably better now.”
On the big fourth-quarter catch, Robinson caught a mid-range pass from Will Levis and darted up the sideline. He was tackled at the 1.
“Once I turned, I saw the corner coming at me and I wanted to make him miss and whoever else was coming miss, too,” Robinson said. “I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just instinct and you go and do it.”
DeAndre Square intercepted Iowa's Spencer Petras with 48 seconds to play to seal the victory. Kentucky won a fourth straight bowl game for the first time in school history and became the fourth Wildcats team with at least 10 victories.
“We’re used to it because we’ve won a lot of close games, and it just comes down to us caring about each other and having a toughness and resiliency,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “This is a player-led team and (Levis and Robinson) are new to our team, but they have had an enormous impact. They made a big difference today.”
Iowa, which rose to as high as No. 2 in the AP Top 25 before a midseason tumble, saw its winning streak in bowl games end at three. The Hawkeyes led 17-13 after Petras threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Sam LaPorta with 10:54 to play. Petras finished 19 of 30 for 211 yards but threw three interceptions.
“You can fault (Petras) for a couple of interceptions, but we don’t because it’s a team effort,” LaPorta said. “He’s a competitor and he’s tough as heck.”
Cornerback Jemari Harris appeared to have capped the win for the Hawkeyes when he picked off Levis with 3:59 to play. It was Iowa’s school-record 25th interception of the season. The Hawkeyes also registered seven sacks.
But the Hawkeyes elected to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 45 with 3:38 remaining, and the punt sailed into the end zone for a touchback, setting up Kentucky’s game-winning 80-yard drive.
Levis completed 17 of 28 passes for 233 yards and a short touchdown in the first half to Robinson, who rushed for 107 yards and the go-ahead score.
The Hawkeyes came in with the nation’s 123rd-ranked offense (297.5 yards per game) and having scored two offensive touchdowns in their previous three games. However, they moved the ball well in the second half.
Gavin Williams ran for 98 yards on 16 carries, while Arlen Bruce IV gave Iowa its first touchdown of the day on a 20-yard sweep with 3:21 left in the third quarter. LaPorta, the latest in a long line of elite tight ends at Iowa, caught five passes for 98 yards.
Kentucky passed almost every test offensively in the early going against Iowa’s stout defense. Levis connected on nine of his first 11 passes, including a 5-yard swing pass to Rodriguez for the only touchdown of the first half.
Levin completed a 34-yard strike to Robinson on a third-and-26 play, leading to a field goal for the Wildcats. Thirty-nine seconds later, D’Eryk Jackson intercepted Petras after the ball was tipped at the line by Jordan Wright. However, Iowa’s defense held firm and forced Kentucky to settle for Matt Ruffolo’s second field goal.
Ferentz refused to name a starting quarterback in the days leading up the game, but the Hawkeyes went with Petras, the starter most of the season despite injuries that knocked him out of 3 1/2 games.
Robinson, the most electrifying player on the field, came through when the Wildcats needed it most. He said he will decide whether to return to college or enter the NFL draft in the coming days after talking with his family and Kentucky's coaching staff.
The Hawkeyes were without standout running back Tyler Goodson, who skipped the game to prepare for the draft.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes must find a way to upgrade their dismal offense, which came in ranked 97th in scoring (23.9 points) and 117th in pass completion percentage (54.3%).
Kentucky: If the Wildcats can convince Rodriguez and Robinson to return with Levis, they should have one of the most potent offenses in the nation. Adding support will be a strong recruiting class that was ranked in the top 15 nationally, led by offensive tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin.
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John Denton, The Associated Press