COLUMN: Defense is key against No. 8 Kentucky


Marco Sotelo Avila

NIU redshirt sophomore defensive tackle James Ester and sophomore linebacker Daveren Rayner bring down Vanderbilt University freshman quarterback A.J. Swann for a sack in the third quarter of a game on Sept. 17 at Huskie Stadium. The Vanderbilt Commodores completed a comeback to beat NIU 38-28. (Marco Sotelo Avila | Northern Star)

DeKALB – The Huskies will visit the University of Kentucky Wildcats this weekend as NIU’s defense will look to shut down the No. 8 team in the nation.

NIU’s defense has had struggles this season, giving up 38 points in each of their last two games. In Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt University, NIU defense blew a two touchdown lead in the second half.

Head coach Thomas Hammock has talked a lot about how the team has been unable to play a full four-quarter game this year.

Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle James Ester says the key to stopping Kentucky’s offense this weekend and being able to play four quarters is consistency.

“It starts with consistency, and that’s something we haven’t had this entire season and these past three games,” Ester said.

The team will also look at this past weekend’s game against Vanderbilt to find ways to improve and to play better against an offense like Kentucky’s.

“Improve our focus and find the small details,” redshirt senior defensive end Izayah Green-May said. “Prepare better and get a better week of preparation.”

NIU’s latest loss to Vanderbilt was rough for the defense. They gave up 24 consecutive points to the Commodores after NIU had a two touchdown lead in the third quarter.

Going into this weekend’s matchup, NIU will take on the formidable offense of the University of Kentucky, which is averaging 31.8 points per game this season.

Kentucky is currently undefeated with a 3-0 record heading into Saturday’s game. The Wildcats opened the season with wins over the Miami University Redhawks, the University of Florida Gators and the Youngstown State University Penguins.

The Huskies’ defense will be tasked with stopping Kentucky’s senior quarterback Will Levis, who has 882 passing yards on the season, six touchdowns and four interceptions.

Levis’ number one target for the season has been freshman wide receiver Dane Key, who leads the team in receiving yards with 226 yards on 13 receptions with three touchdowns.

NIU’s defense will have to look to players like sophomore cornerback Eric Rogers and junior cornerback Jordan Gandy to contain Kentucky’s wide receiver corps.

The defensive front will also need to contain Kentucky’s senior running back Kavosiey Smoke, who has 208 scrimmage yards on the season and one touchdown.

“We have to do our job, and they (Kentucky) are good. They’re an SEC opponent, and we have to make sure that when we can get after the quarterback,” defensive coordinator Nick Benedetto said. “We have to tackle, we have to do the base fundamentals right, and then just be in the game at the end and have a shot to win it, we have to be able to do the little things correctly.”

If the Huskies aren’t able to do all that, they won’t compete in next Saturday’s matchup.

This Saturday’s matchup between the Huskies and Wildcats will be broadcasted nationally on ESPN2 where the game will kickoff at 6 p.m.