The Northern Illinois Huskies have another difficult test ahead of them as they travel to Lexington, Kentucky to take on the Kentucky Wildcats, who are currently ranked eighth in the NCAA.
For NIU, it will be their second straight game against an SEC opponent after falling 38-28 last week to Vanderbilt. The Huskies had a 28-14 lead midway through the third quarter but, after quarterback Rocky Lombardi went down with an injury, Northern gave up 24 unanswered points in the final twenty minutes of the game and fell to 1-2 on the season.
This will also be Kentucky’s second meeting with a MAC school this year. The Wildcats opened the season with a 37-13 win over the Miami RedHawks, in which they threw for over 300 yards and had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Last week they were able to dismantle Youngstown State, an FCS squad, by a score of 31-0.
When: Saturday, September 24th at 6:00 p.m. (CST)
Where: Kroger Field - Lexington, KY
Weather: Low 70s and sunny
Odds: Kentucky is favored by 26.5 points and has a 96.4% chance to win according to ESPN’s FPI. The over/under is 53.
No SEC team has played the MAC more than Kentucky. And they’ve done it nearly twice as much as the next team. This will be the 34th time UK has met a MAC school, with Missouri’s 19 games coming in a distant second (most of those were also when Mizzou was a member of the Big 12).
Kentucky hasn’t had many chances against teams from the Land of Lincoln, going just 2-4 against teams from Illinois. They have a 1-0 lead over SIU but are even with Illinois, 1-1, and winless against Northwestern (0-2) and Chicago (0-1).
It will be the 14th time NIU has laced up against an SEC school and their ninth game against a team from the Bluegrass State. The Huskies haven’t had much luck against the Southeastern Conference, going 1-12 so far...but their lone win was against a 19th-ranked Alabama team exactly 19 years and four days ago, in 2003.
Against other schools from Kentucky, NIU is 2-6 - the lead 2-0 over Murray State but have gone 0-3 against Louisville, 0-2 against EKU, and 0-1 versus WKU.
If NIU wins, it would be the biggest win in Huskie history, surpassing their previous record when they beat #15 Maryland back in 2003.
The biggest concern for the Huskies is the loss of quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who was injured in a non-contact slide last week against Vanderbilt.
He is still uncertain for the game this weekend, which doesn’t bode well for the Huskies. However, Coach Hammock did say “We got better news than what we anticipated. We feel good about where he’s at and his progress that he’s going to be able to make. We’ve got the rest of the week to figure that out.” So there is a small chance we may see Lombardi come Saturday. If not, NIU will go with Ethan Hampton under center.
Hampton, who played most of the game last week in relief, finished 12/19 with 124 yards, two TDs, and an interception. He was also sacked once.
And while those stats seem pretty good, the vast majority of his passing yards came on a single play - a 69-yard TD pass in which he dumped the ball to Cole Tucker on a short crossing route, who made multiple Commodores miss on his way to the endzone.
Hampton didn’t attempt a pass farther than eight yards, instead going short and checking down on most throws, so we haven’t seen what his arm is actually capable of.
Tucker, Shemar Thornton, and Kacper Rutkiewicz will be his main targets. The trio has 489 of NIU’s 654 receiving yards (74.7%) and six of the seven passing touchdowns. Tucker leads the team with 15 grabs, 278 yards, and three TDs while Thornton is close behind him with 13 receptions for 149 yards. Rutkiewicz has just 62 yards on his six grabs but half of his catches have gone for scores, as he is tied with Tucker with three TDs.
If Hampton is to start, look for the Huskies to rely heavily on the ground game with a steady dose of Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee. The duo already has 77 carries and 355 yards, with Brown leading the way. He has gone for 203 yards and three TDs on his 41 carries. Waylee has run the ball 36 times for 152 yards and a score as well. Mason Blakemore will also see a few touches. He has 69 yards and a touchdown on his 16 rushes.
Defensively, NIU will need their DBs to really step up against a very good quarterback. The Huskie secondary has been rocked so far this season, allowing 284.3 passing yards per game, 11 passing touchdowns, and giving up more than ten passes of 20+ yards.
Opponents are also converting 54% of the time on 3rd Down (21/39) and averaging 6.5 yards per play.
Up front the Huskies will rely on Izayah Green-May to get pressure. The former Wisconsin Badger leads the team in TFLs and also has a sack and three QBH in addition to his six tackles.
Linebackers Davern Rayner and Kyle Pugh have played well. Rayner leads the team with 32 total tackles while Pugh is third with 23 stops.
The secondary, which mainly consists of C.J. Brown, Jordan Gandy, JaVaughn Byrd, and Muhammad Jammeh, has combined for 70 tackles, 4 pass break ups, two fumble recoveries, and an interception. Jammeh has the lone pick of the group but cornerback Eric Rogers also has a pair of picks on the season.
Kentucky has been a real tough team the past few years under Mark Stoops. Led by senior quarterback Will Levis, the Wildcats are averaging 31.3 points per game while holding their foes to a measly 9.7 points per game. They are primarily a passing team, throwing for 294.0 yards per game while rushing for just 74.3 yards.
Levis is completing 67% of his throws for 882 yards and six touchdowns. However, he has been sacked 11 times and has tossed four interceptions, so he’s good but certainly not perfect. Fellow MAC team Miami recorded four sacks and Youngstown State had two interceptions...so the Huskie defense might be able to cause some pressure and force some mistakes. And, while he does have two of their three rushing touchdowns, he’s not much of a threat to run - carrying the ball 23 times for -23 yards.
They leave the running to Kavosiey Smoke. Smoke has 178 yards and a score on his 39 carries. La’Vell Wright might also see time. He has 19 carries for 58 yards. As a team they’ve run the ball an even 100 times, averaging just 2.2 yards per carry and netting 223 yards and three scores.
UK has, however, thrown the ball much more effectively with wide outs Dane Key and Tayvion Robinson leading the way. Both have 13 catches with Key going for 226 yards and three scores while Robinson has 202 yards but has yet to find the endzone. Barion Brown is a third name to watch for as he has nine grabs for 99 yards.
Defensively they have been great at breaking up passes, amassing 16 PBUs already this season. Carrington Valentine, a 6-0 junior DB, leads the way with six of those break ups and also has ten tackles, a pick, and a quarterback hurry.
Kentucky is allowing just 253.7 yards per game - 101.7 rushing and 152 passing.
However, they have struggled to get much pressure, only netting six sacks and 13 TFLs (while giving up 11 sacks and 19 TFLs). They have also forced three fumbles but have yet to recover one.
UK is led by a slew of linebackers - DeAndre Square, J.J. Weaver, Jacquez Jones, and Jordan Wright have all been great for the Wildcats.
Square and Weaver lead the team with 15 tackles apiece. Weaver has added 1.5 TFL, a sack, and a forced fumble while Square has two PBU, and a QBH. Jones is right there with 14 stops, 1.5 TFL, a sack, a PBU, and a QBH. Wright is the team leader in TFL, with four, but he also has ten tackles, a sack, a QBH, an interception, and forced a fumble.
The Wildcats are out-gaining opponents by more than 100 yards - 368.3-253.7 - and allowing less than ten points per game. While their stats aren’t gaudy they are a very disciplined, very talented team that is bigger, faster, and stronger than NIU.
If Lombardi and Rudolph were playing, the Huskies might have a better chance. With Hampton starting and a rushing attack that has been lack-luster this season I don’t see the Huskie offense getting much going. Plus, add that to a defense that has struggled to defend the pass, and this game could get ugly.
I want to think the Huskies can keep it close enough to cover......but with a backup quarterback and an under-performing defense, I’m not too sure anymore.
NIU - 14
Kentucky - 41