LEXINGTON — With its starting quarterback and an All-MAC defensive back sidelined, Northern Illinois on Saturday night still managed to keep No. 8 Kentucky on its toes throughout most of what ended as a 31-23 loss.
The Huskies, now 1-3 on the year, will open Mid-America Conference play next week at Ball State. Before looking ahead, though, here are five takeaways from their week-four matchup.
Northern Illinois manufactured enough offense in the first half to take a 14-14 tie into the locker room. For most of the second half, its showing was nowhere near enough to put a victory on the bus.
Kentucky, holding opponents to 253.7 yards per game, was gutted for 179 yards in the first half, including 99 on the ground. The clamps were tight most of the second half. NIU managed just 23 yards on 12 plays in the third quarter. The Huskies found some life late, though, marching for a field goal and then quickly driving down the field for a touchdown that pulled the game within a possession.
The Huskies had a short window to recover an onside kick that came up Kentucky.
The offensive fallout contrasted with a steady effort from a defense that was without Jordan Gandy, a top cornerback who suffered a previously undisclosed injury last week against Vanderbilt. NIU on multiple occasions got to Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, a projected first-round pick in April’s draft, and sacked him five times. The Cats’ struggling rushing attack failed to find an antidote from NIU; the Huskies held them to 103 yards there.
Levis and his receivers still were able to capitalize in key moments against the secondary, though. UK’s quarterback finished with 303 yards and four touchdown passes, matching his career high. Tayvion Robinson toyed with defenders all night, reeling in seven catches for 147 yards and two TDs.
UK with about a minute left in the second quarter eyed a bigger lead after forcing a Huskies punt from midfield. An incomplete pass downfield stopped the clock and was followed by a big gasher up the middle from UK’s Kavosiey Smoke. JaVaugh Byrd got to Smoke near the end of his run and knocked the ball loose; Nick Rattin recovered it for the Huskies at UK’s 34.
Consecutive throws from Ethan Hampton — a 20-yarder down the sideline to Cole Tucker and another for 9 yards to Fabian McCray — set NIU up inside the Wildcats’ 10. After a couple of short rushes and a timeout, the Huskies dug into their bag of tricks: Hampton on a reverse flipped the ball to Shemar Thornton, who almost crossed the entire field before stopping and tossing an easy TD throw to Tristen Tewes, tying things up right before the break.
The Huskies, in the early going, were unfazed by a mostly-hostile crowd. A small pocket of red erupted when Hampton, making his first start of the season, tossed a two-yard touchdown to Tewes on a 3rd-and-3 goal-line fade to close an 11-play drive. It was the pair’s third connection on the game’s opening series, and gave NIU a 7-0 advantage early on the road. Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee were productive on the ground along the way, too, combining for 51 yards to put the Huskies in position to score.
Kentucky responded, though slowly, by the end of the first quarter, tying the game on a 15-yard connection from Will Levis to Barion Brown. The teams exchanged punts to open the second quarter; four Huskies combined on consecutive sacks of Levis to get NIU the ball back with 8:50 to play in the half.
NIU’s third drive stalled quickly, but Tom Foley pinned the Cats at their own 2-yard line. Multiple Huskies converged on Levis as he released a 3rd-and-8 throw from his own 31; he was knocked down, but not before getting the ball about 20 yards across his body to Robinson, who took it all the way to the end zone. That 69-yard score capped Kentucky’s longest drive of the season.
With 5:08 left in the half, NIU seemed content to drain the clock and keep the ball away from UK. That mission failed; an unsuccessful attempt to draw the Cats offside forced a delay of game and a punt from the Huskies, who would get the ball back moments later via the fumble.
Hampton was 13 of 25 for 196 yards and a TD in his first start this season, a marked improvement over his first career start last season (4-for-10, 23 yards).
The Huskies also found success with Justin Lynch as a wildcat option. He rushed for a touchdown and had 21 yards on seven carries.