Kentucky football’s performance in a win over Northern Illinois was something of a mixed bag.
The Wildcats surrendered five sacks, but Mark Stoops saw positive strides from a much-maligned offensive line. The run game finally found some big plays but still only totaled 103 yards. The defense looked in control for most of the night but allowed Northern Illinois to make things interesting late in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously not the finish that we were looking for,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said after the 31-23 victory. “I think that kind of puts a bad taste in everybody’s mouth who was sitting there. We’re up 17 with eight minutes to go in the game. And you’re feeling pretty decent.”
Of course, the most important part of the win was the final score. Kentucky now returns to SEC play with an undefeated record in advance of a top-25 matchup at Ole Miss.
Kentucky was far from the only top-10 team that looked vulnerable in a win over an unranked team Saturday, but was the performance good enough to boost momentum before traveling to Oxford?
The weekly stock watch examines what is trending up and what is trending down for the Wildcats.
Big plays: Kentucky opened the Northern Illinois game with a 16-play, eight-minute touchdown drive, but after the opening drive the Wildcats took full advantage of the big-play ability in Rich Scangarello’s offense.
Quarterback Will Levis connected with wide receivers Tayvion Robinson and Barion Brown for touchdowns of 15, 69, 70 and 40 yards. Levis totaled five completions of at least 15 yards in the game.
Robinson and Brown combined for 185 yards after catch.
“You’re going to need that if you’re going to have an electric offense,” Levis said. “You’re going to need electric playmakers. Tayvion has that ability to make moves before he even catches the ball, which is really cool. Barion just has that next level speed to blow by people. Yeah, I can dunk it all day for 300 yards, but when you can throw for 300, and with only 18 completions, that’s awesome.”
Even the rushing attack finally broke through with a couple of big plays as Kavosiey Smoke tallied the first two runs of at least 20 yards for a UK running back this season.
Kentucky is now tied for 12th nationally with seven plays of at least 40 yards through four games.
Star power: Whether Chris Rodriguez can fix Kentucky’s rushing issues on his own remains a question, but the return of the Wildcats’ senior running back from a four-game suspension next week undoubtedly puts the team in a better position than it has been for the first month.
“He’s hungry, he’s ready to get back,” Robinson said.
Rodriguez will have to guard against trying to do too much to make up for lost time, but he should not lack for confidence in Oxford. In the Wildcats’ last game against Ole Miss in 2020, Rodriguez rushed for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
Matt Ruffolo: The perception of Kentucky’s super senior kicker continues to be hurt by the fact he is not Austin MacGinnis, arguably the best kicker in program history, but Ruffolo has to be considered a weapon now.
Against Northern Illinois, Ruffolo converted his only field-goal attempt, a 49-yarder in the third quarter to give Kentucky its first two-score lead. He is now 7-for-8 on the season. His seven made field goals are tied for 12th most in the country.
Perhaps most importantly, Ruffolo has shown off improved leg strength with at least two field goals of 49 yards. His season long a year ago was 45 yards.
Ruffolo is 10-for-10 on extra points. Even his lone miss this season was followed by the game-clinching field goal on Kentucky’s next drive at Florida.
Ruffolo might not be MacGinnis, but he looks like an All-SEC contender now.
Late-game execution: Maybe the final minutes of the fourth quarter Saturday will soon be forgotten as Kentucky moves on to more intense games, but the execution there is worth remembering as the Wildcats play no shortage of close games over the next two months.
Up 31-17 with 5:21 remaining, Kentucky was unable to gain even one first down in a scenario where Stoops’s UK teams historically have been able to grind down the clock to preserve wins. Running back JuTahn McClain rushed for 2 yards on first down and 4 yards on second down before Levis was sacked for the fifth time in the game on third-and-4.
Northern Illinois responded with a 63-yard catch-and-run on the first play of the following drive. What looked like a fourth-and-goal stop on the following set of downs for the UK defense was negated by a holding penalty, which allowed the Huskies to score a touchdown to pull within one score with 2:47 remaining.
Linebacker Trevin Wallace recovered an onside kick to preserve the win, but even that was no sure thing as the ball bounced over a couple of Wildcats to a position where Northern Illinois could have recovered it.
Rodriguez should help on late drives where Kentucky is trying to run out the clock, but the blocking has to improve, too.
“It’s super important,” Stoops said. “And we need to continue to get better in that predictable run in four-minute offense.”
Ball security: Levis made it through a game without throwing an interception for the first time this season, but another fumble cost Kentucky in a key moment.
After Stoops called two timeouts to give his offense a chance at one final possession in the first half, Kentucky’s big-play threat was on display again, first with a long pass from Levis to tight end Keaton Upshaw that was dropped and then on a 23-yard run from Smoke.
Smoke fumbled at the end of the run, though. That gave Northern Illinois the ball at the Kentucky 34-yard line with 42 seconds left in the half. The Huskies turned that miscue into a game-tying touchdown.
“It was an unfortunate end to the first half,” Stoops said. “It took the wind out of us. You know, you get the stop and I play aggressive to get a last possession and then we put it on the ground. That’s inexcusable. And we lose a lot of momentum there.”
Kentucky has now fumbled six times on the season, tied for 91st in the country. While opponents have only recovered two of those fumbles, the issue must be fixed against better opponents.
It is also worth noting that for all the excitement about Rodriguez’s return, fumbles in key moments were an issue for him a year ago. Kentucky cannot afford him adding to the problem.