LEXINGTON — The Kentucky football program has had plenty to celebrate of late.
The Wildcats (3-0, 1-0 SEC) are ranked No. 8 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25. They’re not yet two weeks removed from Coach Mark Stoops setting a school record with 61 career wins, a number he added to last Saturday with UK’s win over Youngstown State.
The school saluted Stoops with a pregame introduction that day. It handed out a commemorative poster to fans.
And then the Cats beat the Penguins 31-0, and the fun was over.
“Honestly, if you had been in this facility Sunday and Monday, it felt like we had just lost that (Youngstown State) game,” wide receiver Tayvion Robinson said Tuesday. “Because of how great we want to be — how great this team wants to be, and this offense.”
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Kentucky hasn’t been great offensively. Not close. Not yet.
And although the Cats are undefeated and heavy favorites to handle Northern Illinois on Saturday at Kroger Field, nobody seems all that pleased with the state of things.
Certainly Mark Stoops isn’t. He walked into his game-week news conference Monday and processed himself “really kind of disappointed and a little unhappy with some of the undisciplined play that we had” against Youngstown.
The Kentucky defense has been as advertised. UK Ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense, 14th in total defense and hasn’t allowed a passing touchdown.
The offense has yet to live up to its billing.
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So it’ll try to find a get-right recipe against another overmatched opponent Saturday before the conference season begins in earnest next week. Three things you should know about the UK-Northern Illinois matchup:
Kentucky’s Offensive misalignment
UK coaches have stressed that their Offensive problems extend beyond the wall of linemen in front of quarterback Will Levis.
There’s been some sloppy blocking all over the field, some missed assignments by running backs, receivers and tight ends alike.
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But the Offensive line has shuffled and stumbled early, and the numbers don’t look great for what UK calls its Big Blue Wall.
The Wildcats rank 122nd out of 131 FBS teams in rushing offense, averaging 74.3 yards per game. Only 15 FBS teams have fewer than UK’s three rushing touchdowns.
And the Cats have allowed 11 sacks, tied for 124th nationally.
“I thought they did a nice job against Florida, but I thought in (the Youngstown) game that they didn’t meet the standard of play that we expected,” UK Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “And they know that.”
Scangarello said the line and the offense as a whole “have to own” the struggles, but he liked what he saw earlier this week in practice. And Northern Illinois could provide an opportunity to get on track. The Huskies are a middle-of-the-pack rushing defense nationally; they’ve allowed at least 100 yards in all three games this season, including 173 in a loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday. Northern Illinois has five sacks.
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The Huskies’ QB question
Any chance Northern Illinois has to pull off the upset rests on the status of quarterback Rocky Lombardi, a Michigan State transfer with some game to match his all-time football name.
Lombardi left the Huskies’ loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday with an undisclosed second-quarter injury. He had completed all seven of his passes for 79 yards and a touchdown.
The Huskies’ hope is he’ll return in time for Saturday’s game at Kroger Field.
“We got better news than what we anticipated,” Northern Illinois Coach Thomas Hammock said at his Weekly news conference Tuesday. “So we feel good about where he’s at and his progress that he’s gonna be able to make. But we got the rest of the week to figure it out.”
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In his first two games this season, Lombardi completed 32 of 53 passes for 451 yards and four TDs with one interception. Last season at NIU, Lombardi threw for 2,597 yards and 15 touchdowns and ran for 473 yards and nine scores.
“Lombardi is a really good player with some good experience and he’s kind of a crafty guy,” Stoops said. “You could see his comfort level in that pocket early in that (Vanderbilt) game just by the way he was directing things.”
Backup Ethan Hampton came in to complete 12 of 19 passes against Vanderbilt, throwing two touchdowns and an interception.
Replacing JJ Weaver
Kentucky expects to be without linebacker JJ Weaver, tied for the team lead in tackles with 15 despite having left Saturday’s win with an upper-body injury.
Officially, Weaver’s status is week-to-week. But Stoops said “it doesn’t look like he’ll be able to play this week,” and Weaver was absent from the depth chart UK released Monday.
Technically safety Alex Afari will slide into a linebacker spot opposite Jordan Wright.
But Kentucky’s defense has different looks, and Afari — who has 11 tackles and a sack this season — isn’t actually adjusting to a new role.
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“Without getting overly complicated,” Stoops said, Afari plays a hybrid nickel back/strongside linebacker spot.
“So it’s a matter of what we call it on first and second down,” Stoops said. “They have been playing that position. It’s just a matter of whether we decide to go with a big guy or a defensive back.”
If UK goes big, it can turn to 6-foot-5, 237-pound freshman Keaten Wade, listed as Afari’s backup this week.
Wade is “really good and solid” and “has a good feel for the game at that position,” Stoops said, and given additional reps he’ll “start producing the plays that some of our outside ‘backers have over time.”
Wade has played in all three games and has eight tackles, including half a sack.
What is the betting line on the Kentucky-Northern Illinois game?
Kentucky is favored by 24.5 points, according to the VegasInsider Consensus line.
Prediction: Kentucky 42, Northern Illinois 13
The Huskies have a history with power-program schools. They call wins over Power 5 schools and other prominent opponents “Boneyard Wins,” and NIU has racked up 17 of them, including one against an SEC program. The Huskies won at Alabama in 2003. But despite its Offensive struggles, UK is 3-0 against the spread this season, and the defense — even down a leader in Weaver — should be enough to ensure that the Cats keep covering. Expect the running game to take a step forward; maybe not enough to instill confidence for next week at Ole Miss, but plenty to keep the game comfortable for Kentucky.
Reach Louisville men’s basketball Reporter Brett Dawson at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites.