The anxious Kroger Field crowd received relief from the Kentucky offense thanks to big plays by Will Levis and his talented wide receivers. The Kentucky quarterback threw touchdowns of 40, 69 and 70 yards to propel the Wildcats past the Huskies of Northern Illinois 31-23. No. 8 UK improves to 4-0 for the third time under Mark Stoops.
The Kentucky offense was far from efficient, but it didn’t need to be thanks to the big throws from Levis, who always delivered at the perfect time. All three long Kentucky touchdowns were on third and long.
After starting a second quarter drive on the 2-yard line, on 3rd and 8 Northern Illinois brought the house. The outnumbered offensive line held its ground long enough for Levis to find Tayvion Robinson for a 69-yard touchdown. Levis’ first throw of the second half was nearly intercepted. On the following play, a 3rd and 10, he connected with Barion Brown who would not be stopped, sprinting 70 yards untouched into the end zone. Looking for a dagger in the fourth quarter, Levis outlasted the NIU blitz to deliver a 40-yard fatal blow, courtesy of Tayvion Robinson.
“Protection, first and foremost,” Levis credited the big men upfront for the big plays’ success. “I had time, I had time to move and I knew where they were moving pre-snap to let it develop and play out. Guys, the receivers being on the same page as me and being where I knew they were going to be. It was really cool to see all of those come together.”
Will Levis finished the night 18-of-26 for 303 yards and four touchdowns. It ties Levis’ career-high in touchdown passes and is his third 300-yard passing game of the 2022 season.
If not for the quarterback’s big play heroics, Kentucky might not be entering The Grove unbeaten. Let’s dive into Kentucky’s close call against Northern Illinois.
Northern Illinois Starts with a Bang
No Rocky Lombardi, no problem. The Huskies put the stout Kentucky defense on their heels right away. The Wildcats had previously only allowed one scoring drive of 50+ yards and zero passing touchdowns. Northern Illinois used a couple of quarterbacks — Ethan Hampton threw it to the flats off play-action and Justin Lynch ran to move the sticks — to move the ball 6.8 yards per play and into the end zone. The more than 6-minute drive ended with the first passing touchdown against Kentucky in 2022. That long scoring drive handicapped Kentucky’s high-powered offense for the first half.
Huskies Limit Kentucky Possessions
The best Northern Illinois best defense was its offense. That’s not to completely discredit their defensive effort. After all, they forced UK to convert three third downs and a fourth down on a 16-play, 8-minute opening scoring drive for Kentucky. But the Huskies’ offense should be commended for keeping the ball out of Will Levis’ hands. Despite a 4-play, 98-yard Kentucky scoring drive (courtesy of a 69-yard Tayvion Robinson touchdown reception), the Wildcats only had four offensive possessions in the first half. You can’t score if you don’t have the ball.
Middle Eight Mistake
Kentucky got its fourth possession with less than a minute left in the second quarter. It ended disastrously. Instead of moving the ball down the field to seemingly put the game away, Keaton Upshaw dropped a first down pass. On the following play Kavosiey Smoke fumbled the ball 15 yards downfield. Despite being put behind the 8-ball, the defense almost kept the Huskies off the scoreboard. Northern Illinois left it all on the table, dialing up some trickeration on third and goal to tie the game 14-14 at intermission.
Porous Offensive Line Play Continues
Mark Stoops kicked off the week by delivering a call to action to his team, particularly the offense, to clean up its act. The Wildcats did not consistently answer that call.
Will Levis was sacked five times. That’s now 16 on the season, an average of four per game, the most any SEC quarterback has been sacked. The running game did not look drastically different either. In the final game without Chris Rodriguez, the Wildcats netted only 103 rushing yards. Smoke had 85 yards on 12 carries (7.1 ypc.). The Cats produced some pop on the ground, albeit inconsistently.
The offensive line cannot always be blamed for offensive woes. After all, as I alluded to earlier, the big plays were only possible thanks to excellent protection against the blitz. However, Kentucky had a chance on the second drive of the second half to put away the Huskies and there was one whiff after another. On three different plays, three different offensive linemen just got beat.
At this point, the offensive line might just be what it is. Kentucky needs Rodriguez to erase some of those mistakes and continue to be opportunistic when the offensive line is executing.
Late Northern Illinois Scare
Levis’ big bomb with 8:46 remaining gave Kentucky a 17-point lead. The BBN collectively exhaled, with many fans leaving the stands. Northern Illinois kept on swinging. The Huskies were able to get within field goal range to dig into the deficit. One UK three-and-out later, Northern Illinois evaded the Kentucky blitz and dialed up a 63-yard gain through the air. The Wildcats looked like they were going to keep the Huskies out of the end zone, but a holding penalty on fourth down gave NIU a second chance to make it a one-score game. The ensuing onside kick attempt was closer than it needed to be, tipped off Dane Key‘s fingers and into the outstretched arms of Trevin Wallace.
Kentucky was Due for a Let Down
Whether we all want to admit it, like it or not this happens once a year to Mark Stoops Kentucky football teams. “I thought we were past that” is a reasonable response. It’s also reasonable to expect a few early season hiccups without the SEC’s best running back available. That all changes next week in Oxford.
Not every Mark Stoops win is pretty, but he is not going to apologize (nor should he) for being a 4-0 Top 10 Kentucky football team.