Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s 31-23 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday night at Kroger Field:
1. Kentucky’s explosive playmakers on display
After a week of hand-wringing over the struggling offensive line and punchless running game, maybe it’s time for Kentucky football to stop worrying and love the bomb.
The Wildcats dropped a series of explosive plays on MAC-favorite Northern Illinois on Saturday night, led by speed demons, one old the other new. The smart and savvy veteran that is Tayvion Robinson caught seven passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns. The burner that is true freshman Barion Brown snagged four catches for 102 yards and two scores as quarterback Will Levis matched his single-game high of four touchdown passes.
Two 100-yard receivers in a game is impressive. The duo’s YAC yards were even more impressive. That would be yards after catch for you advanced stats newbies. Of Robinson’s 147 receiving yards, 107 came after the catch. Of Brown’s 102 yards, 70 came after the grab. The payoff: Robinson scored on plays of 69 and 40 yards; Brown scored on plays of 15 and 70 yards.
Also noticeable was the way Levis hung in the pocket under heavy NIU pressures to deliver the ball on target and on time to produce those chunk-yardage plays. Afterward offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said he would never draft/recruit a quarterback who did not have grit and the willingness to stand in the pocket against a fierce pass rush. “Will is 10-out-of-10 in those areas,” the OC said.
2. Kentucky’s defense was just so-so
Through four games, Brad White’s defense has set a bar so high that its Saturday night performance was “just OK” in the words of head coach Mark Stoops, and “too sloppy,” according to the defensive coordinator himself.
What aggravated both coaches was the way the defense finished out the night. Kentucky enjoyed a comfortable 31-14 lead over the Huskies with 8:46 left when NIU made it a little too close for comfort. A 24-yard pass play soon followed by a 19-yard pass play led to a 38-yard field goal that pulled the Huskies to within two scores. Next possession, a 63-yard pass play helped the visitors to a touchdown — the first second-half TD the UK defense has allowed in 2022 — that made it a one-score game.
Fortunately, Kentucky recovered an onside kick and the UK offense earned the necessary first down to nail down the win. Still, following last week’s shutout of Youngstown State, the defense felt off balance all night, starting with Northern Illinois’ 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to begin the game.
“Some of the inexperience showed today,” White said. “We’ve got to get it cleaned up. We’ve got a big test next week.”
To be fair, Northern Illinois’ strength is its offense. Even without regular starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi, out with an injury, the Huskies were able to move the ball on the way to 327 total yards. They are picked to repeat as MAC champions for a reason.
Still, White knows that racing Lane Kiffin’s offense next week at Ole Miss is a much different animal. That challenge will require much more attention to detail than the Cats showed on Saturday.
“We have,” said the coach, “plenty to work on.”
3. No better time for Chris Rodriguez’s return
The return of Chris Rodriguez won’t cure all of UK’s run game ills — the Cats rushed for 103 yards against NIU — but getting a preseason All-SEC back after a four-game suspension will certainly help.
Rodriguez is a power back who has the ability to break tackles at the line and beyond. He should also provide a confidence boost to an offensive line that is still looking to jell. The O-line appeared to play better Saturday, though NIU was credited with five sacks.
“That’s not all on the offensive line,” said Scangarello, who split blamed among the O-line (two), the running backs (one) and Levis (two).
For one thing, Levis is obviously more reluctant to run with the football this season. As previously mentioned, he’s hanging in the pocket more, which sometimes leads to the quarterback taking a sack instead of taking off on a scramble. Also, there is the reality that UK has a couple of unproven backups at the position in Deuce Hogan and Kaiya Sheron. The Cats can’t afford to lose Levis.
That makes Rodriguez’s return that much more important, especially at this crucial point of the season. Starting with Ole Miss on Saturday, Kentucky enters a stretch of seven straight SEC games before the finale against archrival Louisville. The rubber is about to meet the road.