Utah’s offensive line plans to keep QB Tyler Huntley upright this time vs. Northern Illinois

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) runs the ball as Brigham Young University (BYU) hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo on Thursday Aug. 29, 2019.

In 2010, Utah and BYU scored a total of one offensive touchdown against TCU’s unbeaten team that went on to win the Rose Bowl.

The 2018 Northern Illinois team that lost the Boca Raton Bowl can make the same claim.

Those are the only common opponents that subdued the Ute and Cougar offenses to that degree since Utah State gave up a total of two field goals in 1974. BYU’s return game vs. NIU will come in 2020; the Utes get their chance to make a better showing Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Utes allowed six sacks of quarterback Tyler Huntley last September in DeKalb, Ill., where the Utah offense produced 10 points in a 17-6 victory (NIU beat BYU 7-6 in Provo in October).

“That’s in the past,” sophomore right tackle Nick Ford said this week. “Look at last week; my offensive line, no one’s touching [Huntley].”

Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said last season's experience is “a testament that you've got to be on your game, or you're going to struggle.”

Facing a Mid-American Conference opponent, Ford said Utah learned, “In all due respect, don't play down to another person's level.”

Utah’s linemen performed well in a 30-12 defeat of BYU, living up to Ford’s preseason promises as Zack Moss ran for 187 yards. That was especially true in the second half, when the Utes posted 243 total yards. Huntley was rarely pressured, although he attempted only 16 passes and BYU’s basic approach was to drop into coverage. Huntley also showed more willingness to deliver the ball on short routes, rather than stand in the pocket too long.

Moss’ determined running also made his linemen look good. Pro Football Focus’ grading credited him with forcing 14 missed tackles and gaining 121 yards after contact.

“In my eyes, it went really well,” Ford said, noting that freshman guards Braeden Daniels and Johnny Maea improved as the game went along, “getting more of a feel for it; our guys are just really talented and they just finally understood what it takes to do what they’ve got to do.”

The freshmen joined Ford, senior tackle Darrin Paulo and junior center Orlando Umana as starters. Noah Reneau-Myers, Paul Toala and Simi Moala played offensive snaps in reserve.

Northern Illinois is likely to be more aggressive than BYU in rushing the passer. But the Huskies won’t have edge rusher Sutton Smith. “Thank goodness,” Whittingham said, when Smith’s name surfaced during Monday’s news conference.

Smith, who sacked Huntley twice, was a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers after entering the NFL draft as a junior. The Steelers cut him last weekend, apparently because his lack of size doesn't fit the NFL model. He was remarkably productive in college, though, even against Power Five opponents such as Utah.

Even without Smith, the Huskies have three returning defensive linemen — ends Matt Lorbeck and Quintin Wynne and tackle Weston Kramer — who combined for four other sacks of Huntley. Moss, somewhat limited by an ankle injury, gained 66 yards on 16 carries. Huntley passed for 286 yards, but Utah couldn’t finish drives.

“They had a good plan against us,” Whittingham said, “and they had good players.”

Wynne had NIU’s only sack in a 24-10 defeat of FCS member Illinois State on Saturday, in the debut of coach Thomas Hammock and his staff after former coach Rod Carey moved to Temple.

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