The appetizers are finished. It’s time for the main course of Kentucky football’s 2022 season.
No. 8 Kentucky closed its September slate with a 31-23 win over Northern Illinois to move to 4-0 on the season. Like the previous nonconference wins over Miami (Ohio) and Youngstown State, Saturday’s win was not always pretty, but Kentucky did just enough to ensure it returns to SEC play at No. 16 Ole Miss in a week with an unblemished record.
Quarterback Will Levis completed 18 of 26 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receivers Tayvion Robinson (seven catches, 147 yards, two touchdowns) and Barion Brown (four catches, 102 yards, two touchdowns) both topped the 100-yard plateau.
Northern Illinois opened the game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to snap the UK defense’s six quarter scoreless streak, but Levis and company answered with a methodical 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The Wildcats took the lead on a 69-yard touchdown pass from Levis to Robinson in the second quarter.
Kentucky helped Northern Illinois stay in the game when running back Kavosiey Smoke lost a fumble at the Wildcats’ own 21-yard line with 42 seconds left in the half. Northern Illinois converted the short field into a game-tying touchdown just before intermission.
UK regained control with a 70-yard catch and run from Brown for a touchdown on the first drive of the second half. Kentucky then put the game out of reach with a 49-yard Matt Ruffolo field goal and a 40-yard touchdown reception from Robinson.
Northern Illinois created some late drama when it prevented Kentucky from converted the needed first down to ice the game and quickly scored a touchdown to pull within eight points with 2:47 remaining, but Kentucky recovered an onside kick attempt to close out the win.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Robinson and Brown deserve plenty of credit for boosting the numbers thanks to yards after catch, but Levis posted perhaps the best passing game of his Kentucky career. Of his eight incompletions, at least two were drops. He also just missed on another long touchdown pass to freshman Dane Key on what was a perfect throw into the corner of the end zone that just slipped through Key’s outstretched finger tips. Perhaps most importantly, for the first time this season Levis did not throw an interception.
After a disastrous sequence at the end of the first half that saw Northern Illinois tie the game at 14, Kentucky looked on the verge of even more turmoil when a Levis pass appeared to be intercepted on the second play of the third quarter. Kentucky players were walking off the field when an official ruled the pass had actually hit the ground, averting catastrophe for the Wildcats. Levis answered in the way one would hope a superstar quarterback would by finding Brown on a 70-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown on the next play. Kentucky did not put the game away until the fourth quarter, but the Brown touchdown marked the beginning of UK taking control again.
So much for a confidence-building performance for Kentucky’s offensive line. The Wildcats surrendered five sacks against the Mid-American Conference foe, adding to the worries about the pass protection. All of those sacks were not the fault of the offensive line — Levis needed to get rid of the ball faster on at least a couple — but Kentucky also struggled again in the run game. With a chance to ice the game late in the fourth quarter, Kentucky was unable to grind out a first down.