Kentucky is set to play under the lights at Kroger Field for the second time this season. Once again, the Cats will be hosting a competitive team from the Mid-American Conference.
Northern Illinois is rolling into Lexington for the first-ever meeting between these two programs. The pregame talk is just about over, and it’s time to play some football. But first, we’re going to take a quick look book and see what was learned heading into Week 4.
Northern Illinois could struggle without Rocky Lombardi
Last week, super senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi had the Northern Illinois offense humming before being lost with a knee injury early in the game. Redshirt freshman Ethan Hampton stepped in, and the Huskies scored two more touchdowns against Vanderbilt, but both came on explosive plays that had a lot to do with skill talent players making fireworks in space.
In his first real action of the season, Hampton struggled to string drives together and had issues pushing the ball down the field. An efficient and explosive passing lost a lot of its bite without Lombardi and doesn’t have enough consistency with the rushing attack to go run-heavy.
Lombardi is currently a game-time decision, but likely will see his mobility limited coming off of a knee injury. Without QB1, it could be very hard for NIU to move the football without No. 12 making plays both within structure and off script.
Kentucky’s pass offense has a huge matchup advantage
You have to think that both Kentucky offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and quarterback Will Levis were licking their chops this week. The Cats have a significant advantage in the throw game.
One year after having a bad pass defense in 2021, things appear to be getting worse for Northern Illinois this fall.
The Huskies currently rank No. 124 in passing success rate and have given up over nine yards per attempt and eight total touchdowns to Tulsa and Vanderbilt. Last season, this defense allowed 27 passing touchdowns and produced only three interceptions.
That gives Kentucky a sizable edge. Expect a big passing game from Levis.
Expect a committed approach to the ground game
Mark Stoops was not happy with his offense’s performance coming off of the Youngstown State win. That frustration had nothing to do with the passing game.
Kentucky has had all kinds of issues getting the ground game established this season as the tailbacks have combined to produce only a 39.7 percent success rate on 68 attempts through three games. Even with the sack yardage taken out, this offense is having a very hard time finding consistency on the ground.
The head coach publicly challenged his entire offense this week and wants to see a better blocking effort from the offensive line, tight ends, and wide receivers. Kentucky turned up the heat this week at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility.
“It’s a matter of getting everybody on the same page,” Stoops told reporters on Monday. “Again, it’s not a matter of are we able to do it. We’re talented enough to do it. There’s no excuses. We just got to play better. We’ve got to be more disciplined and again, the attention to detail, the little things. It’s always a person here and person there that’s throwing us off offensively.”
Watching the execution in the ground game will be something many will be paying attention to at Kroger Field. The Cats know they have to be better and progress needs to be made now before Chris Rodriguez Jr. returns next week.
Expect Kentucky to attempt to establish the run early against Northern Illinois.