Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley was hounded all night by Northern Illinois' pass rushers and then heard criticism of the Ute offense that he found equally “annoying.”
Some harsh responses from fans to the offense’s 10-point production Saturday in a 17-6 victory were understandable, considering the postgame viewpoint of Utah’s coach was similar. Kyle Whittingham said he “overreacted a little bit” in his initial review, but he expects much more from his offensive linemen, who allowed six sacks.
“The offensive line didn't perform very well,” Whittingham said Monday, during his weekly news conference in advance of Saturday night's game vs. No. 10 Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium. “They need to get better. We need to coach 'em better. We've got good players up front and we expect 'em to perform better this week. They're a prideful group and they will respond, in our opinion.”
The Utes were some in some danger of losing to a Group of Five opponent Saturday, prior to linebacker Chase Hansen’s 40-yard interception return for a clinching touchdown with 2:36 remaining. Afterward, Whittingham said the defense received “not a lot of help” from the offense.
Huntley thought his group deserved some credit, though. “Nobody’s taking the positive out of it,” he said. “We’ve still had big plays … [but] one player can mess up a whole play. I feel like that happened a lot.”
NO. 10 WASHINGTON AT UTAH
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN
Hansen was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after recording 12 tackles (including two sacks) and a fumble recovery to go with his second career pick-six. Utah nominated Britain Covey for the offensive award after his 129-yard receiving night contributed to Huntley’s 286-yard passing effort.
But the Utes couldn't sustain much of a running game and NIU pressured Huntley with mostly a standard scheme that required few blitzes, thanks to the relentless work of defensive end Sutton Smith and his teammates.
“Six sacks is not good. It's awful,” Whittingham said, even before the subject was raised in his news conference.
“It's stuff we can easily fix, that's what it comes down to,” senior tackle Jackson Barton said after Monday's practice. “Our attitudes are good; we know what we need to do.”
The Utes have four returning starters on the offensive line: tackles Darrin Paulo and Barton, center Lo Falemaka and guard Jordan Agasiva. Orlando Umana and Nick Ford have been alternating at the other guard position.
The sacks stemmed from “a different problem each time,” Barton said. “There wasn't a trend.”
Utah line coach Jim Harding’s four senior starters from the 2016 team made NFL opening-day rosters last season, but he has not been able to rebuild the line to that level.
Huntley was sacked once in the season opener vs. Weber State and his only interception of the season came when he was hit by Wildcat defenders while throwing. Having allowed seven sacks in two games, the Utes are tied for 112th in the country. They were tied for 118th last season, when Huntley and former backup Troy Williams were sacked an average of three times.
Receivers' inability to get open initially and Huntley's holding the ball “a beat too long” also played into the Utes' pass protections issues, Whittingham said.
“When I watch the film, it's encouraging and discouraging at the same time,” Covey said, believing the Utes were close to sustaining drives. “It's just a matter of all 11 guys doing the right thing on the right play.”
Huntley played the best game of his career last November at Washington, where the Utes exploited the Pac-12′s top-ranked defense for 410 total yards in a 33-30 loss. Huntley accounted for 341 yards with his passing and running.
UTAH VS. THE TOP 10 AT HOME
The Utes' home-field history vs. AP Top 10 teams:
1973 – Utah 36, No. 8 Arizona State 31.
1975 – No. 10 Arizona State 40, Utah 14.
1984 – No. 3 BYU 24, Utah 14.
1990 – No. 5 BYU 45, Utah 22.
1996 – No. 8 BYU 37, Utah 17.
2010 – No. 4 TCU 47, Utah 7.
2013 – Utah 27, No. 5 Stanford 21.
2014 – No. 5 Oregon 51, No. 20 Utah 27.
2016 — No. 4 Washington 24, No. 17 Utah 17.