Despite moving to 4-0 on Saturday night at Kroger Field, Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops was fit to be tied on the sidelines as he watched the Wildcats struggle to find separation from non-conference foe Northern Illinois in a 31-23 win.
In what was expected to be the final tuneup for a tough upcoming conference schedule, Stoops watched a dominant Kentucky defense give up two touchdown passes in the opening half, and an offense that dropped passes and fumbled late in the second quarter as Northern Illinois scored in the final seconds of the half to tie the game at 14-all at halftime.
After a wake-up call in the locker room, the Kentucky defense held Northern Illinois to a field goal for much of the second half before giving up two scores in the final three minutes, and Kentucky found just enough offense to get the win. But it was certainly a grind for a Wildcat team that now has a tough four-game stretch that includes Ole Miss, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Tennessee.
Northern Illinois took the opening kickoff and drew first blood, scoring on a two-yard touchdown pass that capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive in a little over six minutes (6:07) to take a 7-0 lead. No. 8-ranked Kentucky responded with a 16-play scoring drive on its first possession as Levis connected with freshman Barion Brown on a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie things up at 7-all.
Kentucky’s second possession resulted in back-to-back sacks by the Northern Illinois defense as Levis went down on second and third down and has been sacked 14 times through four games. However, despite a booming punt that pinned the Kentucky offense back on its own 2-yard line, Kavosiey Smoke broke a 27-yard run to set up a 69-yard touchdown pass from Levis to Tayvion Robinson to put the Wildcats up 14-7.
Kentucky went to the ground game to run out the first half clock, but Smoke fumbled as Northern Illinois took over at the UK 34-yard line with just 42 seconds left in the half. The Huskies would then tie the game at 14-all on a trick play as wide receiver Shemar Thornton tossed a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tristen Tewes to close the first half.
Kentucky opened the second half in what appeared to be a Will Levis interception deep in Wildcat territory. However, the play was ruled incomplete on the field and Levis promptly reset to find Brown on the next play for a 70-yard touchdown pass to give Kentucky a 21-14 advantage.
Matt Ruffolo kicked a 49-yard field in the third quarter to give the Cats a 24-14 lead and Levis found Tayvion Robinson for a 40-yard touchdown strike to extend the lead to 31-14. The Huskies cut the lead to 31-17 with a field goal in the final quarter and closed out the scoring with three minutes remaining on a quarterback keeper as UK held on for the victory 31-23.
Levis finished 18-for-26 for 303 yards and four touchdowns, which ties his personal high. Smoke rushed for 85 yards on 12 carries.
Tayvion Robinson and Barion Brown get the nod as Co-MVP’s as the duo combined for 11 catches for 249 yards and four touchdowns. Robinson, a Virginia Tech transfer, finished with seven catches for 147 yards, with 107 yards coming after the catch. Brown had four catches for 102 yards.
Brown, a freshman from Nashville, TN., has shown flashes of greatness early on - earning SEC Special Teams Player of the Week after racing for a 100-yard kickoff return in his collegiate debut in an opening season win over Miami (Ohio).
On Saturday night, Brown scored his had his first collegiate touchdown pass, catching a 15-yarder in the opening half and then a 70-yarder in the third quarter to help secure the non-conference win. With fellow freshman Dane Key, Levis now has three big-time receiving targets to go along with a talented core of tight ends.
The Wildcats will now hit the road next week to battle No. 16 Ole Miss, who also remained undefeated after beating Tulsa on Saturday afternoon.
Won our 19th straight non-conference game.— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 25, 2022
Highlights: Kentucky 31, Northern Illinois 23. pic.twitter.com/yZr9U2mHlL