DeKalb, Ill. • Four years ago, tens of thousands of Michigan fans went home during a weather delay and Utah followers moved into prime seats in the fourth quarter. Not counting that snapshot, Ute fans likely accounted for the highest percentage of occupancy of a road venue in the program’s history Saturday night at Northern Illinois.
Several hundred fans in the crowd of 16,762 celebrated a 17-6 victory in the southwest corner of Huskie Stadium, near the visiting locker room. By the time he appeared in the postgame news conference in the north end zone, though, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham was looking and sounding defeated.
Asked to summarize his outlook, Whittingham said, “I don’t feel very good.”
The reason this may have been the least satisfying win over an FBS opponent in Whittingham’s career goes to the heart of his decade-long issue: finding an offense. Utah’s 10-point effort, aside from linebacker Chase Hansen’s interception return for a clinching touchdown, was disappointing.
This season was supposed to be different, right? In the second year of offensive coordinator Troy Taylor and starting quarterback Tyler Huntley, the Utes believed they would become more consistent and productive. That’s not happening. Utah was shut out for a half by NIU’s undersized, aggressive defense and the offense created enough of its own problems to prevent the Utes from getting control of the game before Hansen’s play with 2:36 remaining.
Running back Zack Moss, who was held to 66 yards on 16 carries, was hurt and missed Utah's last offensive series; Whittingham rarely discusses injuries.
“We'll have a hard time winning games going forward, unless we get some solutions really quick,” Whittingham said.
That’s a problem, with nonconference play suddenly over (until the Nov. 24 game vs. BYU). No. 10 Washington comes to Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, launching Utah’s run of nine Pac-12 contests. Whittingham tends to use “average” as a derisive label, and that’s how he assessed his team.
ESPN’s Football Power Index found value in the victory, factoring in poor performances by future opponents Arizona, USC and UCLA. The FPI projects 7.3 wins for Utah, facing the No. 13 remaining strength of schedule — with an upgraded, 28.1-percent chance of beating Washington. That number would seem too favorable to anyone who agonized through the Utes' victory at NIU.
• A veteran offensive line has not improved. Huntley looked skittish at times behind his line, although he passed for 286 yards. Pass protection is multidimensional, including the ability of receivers to get open, but these statistics were stark: NIU recorded six sacks and 14 tackles for loss, covering 64 yards. Defensive end Sutton Smith is a phenomenon, with two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss Saturday; the bigger problem was Utah’s inability to handle his teammates. Senior guard Jordan Agasiva was called for two holding penalties, among the line’s issues.
• Special-teams play is supposedly Utah’s hallmark, but it has been a liability. In each game this season, the Utes have had a field goal blocked and lost a fumble by not fielding a punt due to miscommunication. Matt Gay, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner, also missed a 43-yard attempt. The Utes have basically given up on kickoff returns, using the new fair-catch rule, and they’re getting an overall negative result on punt returns.
• This could have been worse. Power Five teams Arizona, Purdue, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Arkansas lost to Group of Five programs Saturday, and the Utes should be relieved to avoid joining that club.
Player of the game
In a weird way, the performance of Hansen and the Ute defense was almost overshadowed by the Ute offense — the group that made the defense’s work so vital. Hansen’s two sacks, fumble recovery and pick-six added up to a career night for the converted safety.
Runner-up: Britain Covey, with eight catches for 129 yards, although he needs to be more assertive in catching punts.
Play of the game
Utah’s offense couldn’t put away NIU, so Hansen had to do it. His 40-yard interception return basically ended the game, after the Huskies were down 10-6 with a chance to win. That’s how the Utes won by 11 points, after being favored by 11 points.
Runner-up: Covey's weaving, 48-yard gain after catching a short pass in the fourth quarter. Is he really good for one of these spectacular plays every game?
Around the Pac-12
After two weeks, the Utes generally can be comforted by the way the rest of the Pac-12 South is performing and worried about how their crossover opponents in the North are playing. Arizona State and Colorado have risen above expectations, but Arizona, USC and UCLA are underperforming. The Utes' trouble remains the fact they have to play Washington, Washington State, Stanford and Oregon.
Washington will be the 10th team to visit Utah with a top-10 ranking since 1936. The Huskies were No. 4 in October 2016, when they needed a punt-return touchdown to escape with a 24-17 victory. Utah is known for a loud crowd and a home-field advantage, but stands 15-17 in Pac-12 home games.