It’s almost football time in the Bluegrass! Here are some final thoughts and predictions about how the University of Kentucky’s game versus Northern Illinois might play out on Saturday evening.
PROTECT THE ROCK
Kentucky is tied for 103rd nationally in interceptions (four) through three games. Against Youngstown State, the Wildcats fumbled four times, though only one of those miscues was recovered by the opponent.
Still, coaches do not seem concerned about quarterback Will Levis’ interceptions.
“There’s just a couple times where maybe the play isn’t in rhythm or the snap was off,” offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “Sometimes he wants to make the play so quickly his mind sees it before everyone else, but that speeds everything else up in your body. When you see it fast, you almost want to think the opposite. Slow down, play within the game, let it flow, speed up when I need to.”
The first of Levis’ two interceptions against Youngstown State could be attributed to a poor route from a receiver. Levis did sail his throw on the second interception, but again the receiver cut his route short when he should not have.
A week earlier at Florida, Levis was charged with an interception on a play when the ball popped into the air as Levis was being sacked and was caught by a defender. It is unclear if it would have been ruled an incomplete pass or fumble if it had not been caught.
There might be explanations for Levis’ interceptions, but is still a storyline worth monitoring considering he has now thrown 17 interceptions in 17 games at Kentucky.
“He can get away with it most of the time because … there’s probably 15 guys on the planet that can throw it like him,” Scangarello said. “Because of that, sometimes those things happen. You see it in the NFL all the time. Guys think they can pull it off, and they can’t. There’s that threshold where you’ve got to manage your body and your mind. He’ll get better at it.”
RED ZONE IMPROVEMENT NEEDED
The first Levis interception against Youngstown State came on the Penguins’ 3-yard line. Even if the receiver was at fault, it still marked one of several worrisome failures in the red zone this season.
Kentucky enters game No. 4 ranked 103rd nationally in percentage of red-zone appearances that end in a touchdown (50). Three of the Wildcats’ five red-zone touchdowns have been aided by penalties from the opponent inside their own 10-yard line.
“Everything tightens up in there,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said. “Things happen quicker. The decisions have to be quick, by the quarterback, play calls, putting them in good position, executing at a higher level.”
Perhaps the most worrisome red-zone failure came on the Wildcats’ final drive against Youngstown State. Kentucky had first-and-goal at the 3-yard line and lost 2 yards over the next three plays before settling for a 15-yard field goal.
The overall rushing struggles contribute to the red-zone issues. Kentucky has just one rushing touchdown from a running back this season, but star Chris Rodriguez will likely take on a key red-zone role, thanks to his physical running style, when he returns from a four-game suspension next week at Ole Miss.
Kentucky cannot assume Rodriguez will fix the problem on his own, though. Converting its red-zone opportunities into touchdowns against Northern Illinois would provided a needed confidence boost heading into the meat of the SEC schedule.
PREPARING FOR TWO QUARTERBACKS
Normal Northern Illinois starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi, a former transfer from Michigan State, was injured in the week three loss to Vanderbilt. His status for the game against Kentucky remains up in the air.
Earlier this week, Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock said the early news on Lombardi’s leg injury was positive but a decision about his status had not been made. Lombardi completed 58.3% of his passes for 2,597 yards, 15 touchdown passes and eight interceptions last season to lead Northern Illinois to a MAC championship. In three games this season, he has completed 65% of his passes for 530 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
Lombardi had completed all seven of his passes for 79 yards and one touchdown at the time of his injury against Vanderbilt last week.
Backup quarterback Ethan Hampton completed 12 of 19 passes for 124 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in relief of Lombardi against the Commodores. The redshirt freshman has appeared in just three games in his career.
“I think their identity is rooted in who they are,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said, dismissing the suggestion Northern Illinois might play differently if Lombardi is not available. “They’re a tough, hard-nosed football team. I think their O-line, they play really well together. They do a nice job moving people off the ball. They do a good job of being able to run pin-and-pull schemes. Their running backs do a nice job of setting up blocks. They run hard. The receivers, they make the necessary plays in the pass game. When they get a chance to break free like they did against Vandy they can score a big one, so you’ve got to be mindful of that.
“They’re very willing blockers in the run game. So, they’re physical, they’re strong, they play with a tough mentality. Those teams are always hard really to get the guys ready for the physicality and soundness of that. It doesn’t always come off in practice, but I think the guys have a great understanding just watching film about the challenge they’re in for.”
Kentucky 42, Northern Illinois 17: The preseason MAC favorites, Northern Illinois has struggled so far this season with losses to Tulsa and Vanderbilt. It would also make sense for the Huskies to hold Lombardi out to help him regain full health in time for conference play. Add in the wake-up call Kentucky’s offense received against FCS Youngstown State last week and this feels like a scenario where the Wildcats put a complete performance together in advance of a ranked game at Ole Miss next week. The risk of a trap game is real, but Kentucky’s defense has been too good to imagine a loss here, even if the offense is lackluster again.
MVP: Will Levis. Northern Illinois ranks 119th nationally in passing defense (284.3 yards per game). Levis ranks 18th nationally in passing yards per game (294) among all quarterbacks. The formula is here for a huge game for Kentucky’s star quarterback. The goal should be 300-plus passing yards with no interceptions.
The spread: As of Friday morning, Kentucky was favored by 26 1/2 points. That seems reasonable considering even in Northern Illinois’ MAC championship season a year ago the Huskies lost 63-10 to a Michigan squad that was ranked 25th at the time but finished the season at No. 3. Northern Illinois has not beaten a ranked nonconference foe since 2003.
Will Levis passing yards: 335.
Kentucky rushing touchdowns: 2.
Which team records the most sacks: Northern Illinois.
Northern Illinois third down success rate: 20%.
THE LAST WORD
Offensive line coach Zach Yenser on his position’s play:
“We’ve protected decently, but like I talk about all the time, did we play well enough to beat an SEC football team? The guys look at (Youngstown State) and say no. They know it. They grade themselves. They look at it. We’ve got to continue to improve. We’ve got a game to continue to do that and then, heck, we’re in it. We’ve just got to continue to head in the right direction, and I think we’ll head that way.”