No. 8 Kentucky muzzles Huskies; defeats Northern Illinois 31-23



Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Tayvion Robinson (9) runs down the field to score a touchdown during the No. 8 Kentucky vs. Northern Illinois football game on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 31-23. Photo by Isabel McSwain | Staff

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

No. 8 Kentucky (4-0) defeated Northern Illinois (1-3) 31-23, ensuring that it will travel to Oxford, Mississippi undefeated in week five.

Unlike the previous games this season, Kentucky’s win over NIU seemed to be as a result of its offensive performance, not in spite of it.

Starting quarterback Will Levis went 18-26 from the field, a completion percentage of 69%, and threw for 303 yards and four touchdowns.

“When you can throw for 300 [yards] and only 18 completions it’s awesome,” Levis said. “I’m proud of how we played today and there’s a lot of things to improve upon, but we’ll get there.”

The win also marked the first time this season Levis has been without at least one interception in a game, with the Huskies dropping a pass to keep his record clean.

Beyond just a great day for Levis, the receiving duo of Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson and true freshman Barion Brown both secured over 100 receiving yards, combining for 149 with two touchdowns each.

Even more impressive were the yards after reception with Robinson amassing 107 yards after reception and Brown amassing 76.

“It’s very important to me knowing that I am making an impact on the team,” Brown said. “That I am out there doing something, and I just feels good knowing that I’m helping them in some way. I know I have very talented speed, so I know when I get the ball and the first guy don’t put his hands on me, more than likely I’m gonna be running for a minute.”

The run game also saw its first 100-plus yard game, finishing with a combined 103 rushing yards mostly thanks to Kavosiey Smoke’s 85-yard night.

Smoke wasn’t the only back Kentucky utilized though, with junior running back JuTahn McClain making his return after suffering an injury in week one against Miami Ohio. McClain rushed for 15 yards on three attempts.

While optimistic in one regard, many in attendance could feel their hearts in their throats when redshirt freshman running back La’Vell Wright went down with an apparent injury, having been a critical piece of the Kentucky offense without the trio of Chris Rodriguez Jr. (suspension), Ramon Jefferson (ACL) and McClain.

Luckily for Kentucky, head coach Mark Stoops seemed to indicate the severity of the injury was not dire, agreeing with the sentiment that Kentucky “fairly injury free in the game.”

Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello appeared to be in higher spirits than he had been a week prior, with the offense in much better condition after defeating the Huskies.

“I just felt like we found our groove as a staff as far as communication,” Scangarello said. “Not panicking and understanding that games don’t always go our way in the first half. It felt eerily similar to an NFL game, we had very few possessions, it was like three possessions and two-minute drive and those are fun games to call and be a part of. Not every game is going to be a blowout, you never know how they’re going to play out.”

One coach who was not as pleased with the performance was defensive coordinator Brad White, who expressed disappointment at the shortcomings of the defense against NIU.

“[We were] too sloppy,” White said. “[We made] too many mistakes. That’s something that we gotta get cleaned up. Some of the inexperience in certain areas showed today. We gotta get cleaned up and we’ve got a big test next week.”

The two biggest visible defensive collapses came at the ends of both halves, first surrendering a touchdown with six seconds left on the clock to allow a tie game at halftime, and again in garbage time with a 63-yard pass that saw the Huskies get into the red zone and eventually score again with under three minutes left to play.

“I feel like we’re on a roller coaster,” White said. “The first drive [Northern Illinois] did a nice job with some shifts and motions and all that, but then the guys settled down and I thought they settled in so, disappointed that we couldn’t rise up and hold it to a field goal there at the end of the half. I thought the guys played good football in the third quarter and the start of the fourth and then those last two drives we got lazy on the outside edges. We had a long one on that last drive where two guys collided, that can’t happen.”

While the 63-yard pass may have come from two defenders running into each other, the defense held strong for what seemed to be a fourth down goal-line stop before the flag came in, with holding against Zion Childress giving the Huskies a new set of downs that they immediately capitalized on and scored with.

As a whole, Kentucky allowed 327 total yards of offense, the most allowed all season, with 199 yards coming from the air and 128 yards coming from the ground.

Despite this however, the mood was generally a positive one following the game, with the offense in high spirits and the defense just happy to secure the victory.

“You never complain about a win,” White said. “Trust me, [the win] is what it’s about and I’m really proud of the offense and how well they responded, so now it’s our turn as a defense to respond too.”

With the Cats not even coming close to covering the spread and surrendering a garbage time touchdown, it is yet to be seen how Kentucky’s ranking is affected going into its matchup against No. 16 Ole Miss who struggled similarly, also failing to cover its spread and narrowly escaping Tulsa at home 35-27.

With the matchup against the Rebels regarded by many to be a top three matchup in terms of importance for the Cats, Kentucky lifts a little weight off its shoulders with the re-addition of Rodriguez Jr., who will be eligible to play in Oxford.

“C-Rod is special,” Scangarello said. “He’s a difference maker and difference makers are what they are. I see it every day in practice. I think it just provides us something different and I’m excited to get him back.”

No. 8 Kentucky and No. 16 Ole Miss are currently slated to kick off at noon EST inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi on Saturday, Oct. 1, with the game airing live on ESPN.