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Stoops and Cats recap narrow escape of Northern Illinois

Saturday’s win was too close for comfort.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

In college football, there are some weeks where your team wins and you want to analyze and highlight every single moment of the game. For the Kentucky Wildcats, they’ll be glad to move on to their next opponent after escaping the Northern Illinois Huskies in a narrow 31-23 victory.

Frustrations and concerns were the topic of the first half. The Huskies moved the ball effectively on the first drive of the game, quickly going up 7-0. Kentucky answered with a Barion Brown touchdown and took the lead right after with a Tayvion Robinson home run.

After the Wildcats’ defense tightened up, it looked like Kentucky would take a 14-7 lead in to the locker room. However, Kentucky found themselves tied at 14-all following a fumble from Kavosiey Smoke and a quick touchdown by the Huskies on a short field.

Thankfully, Brown and Will Levis didn’t waste any time coming out of locker room as they connected for a 70-yard touchdown — his second of the evening — to go up 21-14.

Kentucky punted on their following drive but turned on the gas again with a 49-yard field goal from Matt Ruffolo and a second touchdown by Robinson on back-to-back drives to extend their lead, 31-14.

The Wildcats gave up a field goal and touchdown on the following two possessions but managed to hold on for the narrow victory.

Head coach Mark Stoops and his team certainly had their fair share of frustrations on Saturday, but nonetheless they’re on to Ole Miss for a premier showdown of two top-tier teams in not just the Southeastern Conference but the entire country.

Here’s what Stoops and a few of his players had to say following the win.

Mark Stoops

MARK STOOPS: You know, obviously not the finish that we were looking for. 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, and I think at that point in time we punted. And, obviously, they hit the big, explosive play on the first down well, after the three. They come back and get the explosive play when we were up 14 and we knew the absolute exact play that was coming.

And, if I’m not mistaken, the corner and one of our defenders ran into each other and created the explosive, which is not good in that situation. You got to make them work for their yards.

I thought the — you know, the beginning of the game was sluggish for us, letting them drive down and score. Offensively, came out — again, just didn’t do much early in the first half. And, just overall, just a sluggish game. Good to get it behind us.

We know it’s a good football team. It’s tough. They’re going to play hard, compete for their conference championship. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We thought, again, we did good things.

Will Levis played an extremely good game once again. We improved in certain areas with the protection. They were bringing a lot of pressures and we made them pay for it with the pressures. We got them protected and hit the ball downfield with some explosive plays. That was good to see.

Run game, again, hit and miss. And defensively I just thought we were okay. So a lot to improve on. It’s good to be 4-0 and we’re excited to get back to work and looking forward to getting toward the challenge on the road this week.

Q. Mark, your best teams have been so good at having the ball, being able to hold on to it, run some clock at the end. How important is it to develop some of that and be balanced with the big plays?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think it is important. It’s super important. And we need to continue to, you know, get better in that predictable run in four-minute offense.

Q. Do you feel like you saw improvements from your offensive line?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I do. I think they did some good things. And they were bringing a lot of pressures. And I felt like we picked up a lot and created some opportunities for the explosive plays.

Again, you know, with all of us feeling like it was just the gung-ho performance, just sitting there, and at that point when you felt like you had the game under control if we could get a stop.

You know, we were averaging almost a 7.3 yards per play. You know, which is pretty explosive. And we just got to do a better job of finishing.

Q. There were a couple times after some short runs, I think a third and one short run, Will is kind of clapping his hands. He seemed kind of frustrated that time. With the lack of push there upfront and the pass protection, getting sacked five times, what was he saying about just how frustrated he was?

MARK STOOPS: I think we just felt like there were plays, there were opportunities. And, you know, just we were getting close and we want a couple of those runs to spit out. We had a couple. And, you know, I think there was a lot of confidence there that we could create explosive plays, as we did.

Q. (No microphone.)

MARK STOOPS: I got to look at the tape, Lonnie. I’m not sure. You know, from the sideline, maybe a few that there was some opportunities, yeah.

Q. I know you were unhappy with the penalties last week. Do you feel like you did a better job?

MARK STOOPS: I did. Yeah, I think — I don’t know what we ended up with there. The hold there was a big penalty at the end. But I want to say, late, we had one. I don’t know what we ended up with. Two, yeah.

Q. (No microphone.)

MARK STOOPS: We have a lot of confidence. I thought he did a good job and played well. I didn’t see the hold. I didn’t see the play. You know, I just saw the finish. I didn’t see the hold.

Q. For several years, you’ve been talking about wanting to get more explosive. Now, you’ve gotten there. Do you feel like it’s been helping you in some of the other bumps in the road?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say. I think it’s — you know, we’re all striving for perfection. You know, and maybe we’re not there yet. But we wanted to be explosive and we’re certainly getting that. So that’s a plus.

Yes, I’d like to be — you know, it’s also — you know, you kind of – you’ve got to be who you are. And right now we have a very talented quarterback. You know, we have some explosive wide receivers. So we’re creating some big plays.

Yes, I think we want to be a little more consistent in the run game. See, everybody appreciates the run game now. Five years ago, y’all didn’t appreciate (expletive). (Laughing.) I’m joking, I’m joking. Everybody relax. (Laughing.)

Q. Mark, it seems like a couple of the sacks — Will’s the cause of those explosive plays. Is it Will holding the ball? Is it he thinks he can make a big play? That’s what it looks like. Is that the way it is?

MARK STOOPS: Well, when they were bringing all that pressure, they were doing a great job of trusting his protection and we created the explosives. Even late in the game, I felt like we had a play designed to complete one. But the player was so far behind him on the front side, we doubled back.

It was a double move and he felt like he was going to fall into it because he was so far behind on a little snag route we had. And so, long story short, he kind of held that one late to cap the game.

And he didn’t want to make a bad decision and have somebody fall into a play, you know? But he did a really nice job, to your point, of hanging in there and delivering the ball downfield.

Q. Mark, you said you appreciate the run game. You’ll get Chris back. How much has he helped as a blocker in addition to what he’ll do for you as a runner?

MARK STOOPS: He’ll help in a lot of ways. We all know he’s a very good football player in a lot of ways. And we’ll be excited to get him back.

Q. Conference play ramps up. Where’s the focus and how does the focus change?

MARK STOOPS: Well, I think everybody — you know, the intensity level, you know, has to ramp up. But I really — as I just told the team: We had a really good week of practice. You know, so I challenged them hard all week. And they did. You know, they really practiced hard.

There’s areas where we improved. And there’s areas where you have to give them credit. And there’s areas where we need to continue to go back to work and focus and get better. And we will.

Q. Mark, you talked about the last few weeks about having to get better around Will. I know you said we saw some sluggish things. In those areas, did you see them improve anything around that specifically?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think we definitely played better around him tonight. The receiver play was cleaner. There’s still some younger guys, still some inexperienced guys. I thought they did a good job. I thought the protection improved in a lot of ways. So, yeah, I think we’re doing some better things.

Q. Did Northern Illinois have more misdirection than you were anticipating?

MARK STOOPS: They did a nice job of keeping us off-balance. They did. We were anticipating that. We always do. We always get a lot of misdirection and boots from our offense all the time. So, we see that.

They did a nice job creating some looks and overloading us into the boundary and booting and pulling the three through. They did a nice job.

Q. You were talking about those wide receivers stepping up. Last week and Monday, you said we needed to see wide receivers block better. I know you’ve got to watch the film, but just in first sight, did they do better today?

MARK STOOPS: I felt like they played cleaner just in general. You know, so we’ll see from the look at it.

Q. What did you tell the team at halftime? It seems like they came out with a little bit more energy.

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I mean, it was an unfortunate end to the first half. 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.

You go in 14-7 and you get the ball to start the second half, big difference there. So, we just can’t put the ball on the ground. But I just told them to just be calm, it’s 0-0. We’re going to take the ball. We get the opportunity to get the ball in the second half. And go score and go play. You know, I didn’t want them to clam up and get tight at that point. They played good.

Q. When Will is able to take a big hit and still throw a 70-yard touchdown bomb, does that kind of light the sideline up?

MARK STOOPS: It doesn’t surprise any of us at this point. We know he’s a tough guy. We put a lot on him and he’s playing really good football.

Q. Mark, you said just okay defensively. Defensively, the third downs bring you problem in the first half, much less in the second. Was there anything noticeable to you that was making a difference?

MARK STOOPS: Well, I think, you know, part of it is them getting good opportunities. You know, third and short, third and medium and keeping us off-balance. You know, that was part of the first third downs and getting them in a little longer, predictable situations helps us out.

Q. How reliable is Tayvion?

MARK STOOPS: Tayvion is playing really good. Yeah, really good. A crafty player. He’s really skilled and talented, but he’s also very smart.

Q. (No microphone.)

MARK STOOPS: He does. Yeah, he does. He has a good knack for sitting when he needs to sit, running through it, pulling out of it. You know, we knew we were in zero on a couple of those and he spun out of it and made them pay.

Q. What did you still need to see from the offensive linemen and the pass protection? Is there something with the technique? Three sacks, five sacks is there something —

MARK STOOPS: It’s not always on them. I’m not saying none of it is or — you know, some of those sacks — where the one in particular was, that stands out to me where I know we got beat clean off the edge. There’s other ones where the quarterback needs to throw the ball. There’s running backs, there’s a lot of people involved.

I mean, as I said, we know we need to improve. But look at the good that they did tonight, as well, in protecting a bunch of stuff. And they were selling the farm. And we made them pay for it.

On what was working for the defense tonight…

“We were playing hard. We had some little mistakes we needed to clean up, but we can never talk about our effort because we always try to get to the ball.”

On the emotions of going back to Oxford…

“It’s a bittersweet moment. That’s where I started and they took me in at 18 years old, so you know it’s going to be a bittersweet moment, but at the end of the day we’re going there for one reason.”

On what was going through his mind when he saw the onside kick float through the air…

“I’m not going to lie, I was going to go over there and go get it. The way the ball was just hopping around, I was about to try to go get it. But we did a great job of recovering that and got to give all the credit to NIU.”

#7, Will Levis, QB

On what was the key to the success of those three big touchdowns…

“Protection first and foremost, they are bringing pressure on two of the three. One to Barion they actually sat back and played soft zone and once that happened they started bringing pressure on most of the third downs. But I had time, and I had time to move. I knew where I would be moving pre snap to make it all develop and play out. It’s guys being on the same page as me, being where I knew they would be. It was really cool seeing all this come together.”

On when Barion was gone…

“Oh yeah, I mean I knew once he got past the safety there was no way someone was catching him. So that was really cool to see.”

On what kind of luxury it is for him to have these kinds of receivers…

“Yeah you’re going to need that if you’re going to have an electric offense. You’re going to need electric playmakers. Octavian 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.”

#9, Tayvion Robinson, WR

On what how natural ability and learned skills lead to being a smart player…

“It is 50/50. I have a natural feel. When it comes to playing the slot and seeing the defense, and I was taught during my time playing football at my previous school. When you play football for so long at this level, the game starts to slow down a little and you get a better understanding of it.”

On Stoops saying he is one of their reliable guys …

“It feels good, that’s why he brought me here. You know, as an experienced guy, he saw I was a playmaker, and I have been doing that since I have been here.”

On how he has learned to use his body and speed to get out of tackles and make a few extra yards after every catch …

“Running those routes, and when you get manned and you get matched, when I break down and see where he was last, that’s why I avoid them. That’s what coach liked about me, I was good at making a guy or two miss after the catch, and I plan on doing it”

#2, Barion Brown, WR

On what it feels like to score quickly and electrify everybody …

“It feels good, honestly. To get the crowd roaring. I love the crowd and when they cheer us on. They make sure we keep our energy. Kudos to the crowd for that.”

On what has he built with Levis …

“Just building chemistry, for me, becuase I am a new guy. Building trust and making sure he trusts me. When the game is on the line making sure he can come to me, and I will make the play. He has just been a great quarterback throughout the games so far.”

On how he thinks the running game has been this season…

“It has been good. I feel like the running backs have been pounding the ball for us when we need them to.”