Five things you need to know from No. 8 Kentucky’s 31-23 win over Northern Illinois in NCAA football at Kroger Field:
1. Wildcats’ offensive line is still struggling. After a rough start to the 2022 season, the hope was that the Kentucky offensive front could build momentum against an NIU defense that came into the game 110th (out of 131 teams) in the FBS in total defense.
That did not appear to happen.
Kentucky quarterback Will Levis was sacked five times. The UK QB has been sacked a robust 16 times this season — and has taken too many other hits, too.
Meanwhile, the UK running attack remained pedestrian. Kentucky finished with 103 yards on the ground.
Not all of the Wildcats’ offensive issues are on the line play. After the game, Kentucky offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello that, of the five sacks, two were on the line, two were on Levis for holding the ball too long and one was on a running back.
The return of star running back Christopher Rodriguez next week at Mississippi after he missed the first four games due to suspension will assuredly help.
But even a physically punishing back — which C-Rod is — needs some holes to run into.
So far, there just haven’t been a lot of those this season for UK.
2. Levis sets a Stoops-era mark. Kentucky quarterback Will Levis completed 18 of 26 passes for 303 yards with four touchdown passes and no interceptions.
It is the sixth game with more than 300 yards passing for Levis at UK. That broke a tie with Patrick Towles for the most such games in the Mark Stoops-coaching era (since 2013).
In 17 games as UK QB, this was the fourth contest in which Levis has not thrown an interception.
NIU used a blitz-heavy defensive package. That forced Levis to “stand in’ against ample pressure and make plays.
3. Give credit to NIU’s brain trust. Coach Thomas Hammock and his staff put together a well-thought-out game plan.
With a veteran offensive line and good running backs, the Huskies deployed a physical running game.
Forced to use backup quarterbacks due to the injury to starter Rocky Lombardi, NIU effectively used a short-passing game that did not ask redshirt freshman QB Ethan Hampton to “do too much.”
Defensively, the NIU secondary was depleted by injuries to both starting cornerbacks. So the Huskies’ blitz-heavy approach put pressure on UK’s weakness, the blocking, and took pressure off of Northern Illinois’ DBs.
4. Stoops vs. the MAC. With the win, Mark Stoops ran his record vs. Mid-American Conference teams to 8-0. Stoops has two wins over Miami (Ohio) (2013, 2022) and Eastern Michigan (2017, 2019) and one win each over Ohio University (2014), Central Michigan (2018), Toledo (2019) and NIU (2022).
There will be plenty of chances for Kentucky to continue to vanquish MAC teams in the immediate future. In coming seasons, Kentucky is scheduled to play Mid-American Conference teams Ball State and Akron (2023); at Akron and vs. Ohio (2024); Toledo and Eastern Michigan (2025); Akron (2026); Toledo and Ball State (2027); and at Toledo (2028).
5. Hey Nineteen. With the victory, Kentucky’s longest-in-the-FBS streak of non-conference victories reached 19. UK has not lost to a team from outside the Southeastern Conference since falling to Northwestern, 24-23, in the 2017 Music City Bowl.
UK’s next chance to extend its non-league win streak will come Nov. 26 when intrastate rival Louisville of the ACC visits Lexington for the annual battle for the Governor’s Cup.
For its fourth game of 2022, Kentucky wore blue helmets, blue shirts with white letters and numbers and white pants.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 23, 2022
Since the start of the 2015 season, UK is now 14-4 in the blue, blue, white combination.