In his first team meeting after a season-opening win, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham told his players to stop talking about BYU.
His first words in Monday’s news conference, looking ahead to Saturday’s contest with Northern Illinois? “The rivalry game’s over.”
As someone began to frame a question Tuesday about the emotional challenge that follows an early season meeting with BYU, Whittingham interrupted, “We’re on to NIU. That game’s over with.”
Just so we’re clear, then: If No. 13 Utah struggles at all with this Mid-American Conference opponent at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a post-BYU letdown won’t be the reason. Throughout the season, “win or lose, you can’t let it linger,” Whittingham said.
That seemed to happen to Utah multiple times after beating BYU in this decade, notably in a 37-7 loss at Arizona State to launch Pac-12 play in 2012. Former athletic director Chris Hill later tried to give Whittingham's team a Group of Five opponent in the post-BYU slot, resulting in better outcomes, such as a a 54-16 rout of San Jose State in 2017.
The future schedules that Hill created before retiring last year have Big Sky Conference or Mountain West teams to follow BYU through 2022. Mark Harlan, Hill’s successor, has added two games vs. BYU, to be followed by an undetermined Pac-12 opponent in ’23 and a visit from Power Five member Baylor in ’24.
Utah’s results in this decade, in its first game after beating BYU in September (plus future opponents that will follow the rivalry game in the next decade):
2011 – Washington 31, Utah 14
2012 – Arizona State 37, Utah 7
2013 – UCLA 34, Utah 27
2016 – Utah 34, San Jose State 17
2017 – Utah 54, San Jose State 16
2019 – Utah vs. Northern Illinois
2020 – Utah vs. Montana State
2021 – Utah at San Diego State
2022 – Utah vs. Southern Utah
2023 – Utah vs. Pac-12 opponent, TBD
2024 – Utah vs. Baylor
As for 2019, the natural breakdown of Utah’s first four games goes BYU, Northern Illinois/Idaho State, USC. The flaw in that sentence is lumping NIU with ISU, because the Huskies are one of the top Group of Five programs. The Utes should recognize that, after agonizing for 57 minutes of a 17-6 road win last September.
If Saturday’s game becomes more comfortable for Utah, it will because running back Zack Moss is as effective as he was against BYU (187 rushing yards) and quarterback Tyler Huntley is more productive than last week (106 passing yards).
NIU coach Thomas Hammock’s background is offense, so he leaves the defensive game planning to coordinator Derrick Jackson. Hammock knows the scouting report, though. “It’s easy this week: No. 1 [Huntley] and No. 2 [Moss],” he said.
The questions for the next two Saturdays are whether Moss will maintain his heavy workload of 29 carries against BYU or partially rest for Utah's Pac-12 opener Sept. 20 at USC, and how much the Utes will work on their passing game, as opposed to saving stuff for USC. Huntley completed 13 of 16 passes for 106 yards at BYU (he scrambled six times on passing plays). Only two of his passes went for first downs.
Utah’s athletic staff will introduce a new first-down ritual for fans Saturday. The Utes could help establish the tradition by moving the ball in the first half — unlike last week in Provo, where the offense produced three points before halftime, or last year at NIU, where Utah trailed 3-0 at the half.
The reality is the Utes won't necessarily be fast starters, in new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's approach. Hammock, who coached Wisconsin's running backs under Ludwig in 2013, said, “He believes in the running game being a softening process.”
That was apparent in Provo, as Moss thrived in the second half. The Utes had trouble running the ball and protecting Huntley against the Huskies last year. Part of this week’s mystery is how NIU’s new defensive staff will align its players vs. Utah. “This is when scheming starts getting fun,” said Ute receiver Britain Covey.
Utah's offensive players and coaches have studied the defense of Purdue, where Jackson formerly worked, in addition to NIU's 24-10, season-opening win over Illinois State. “We've collected a whole library of stuff,” Whittingham said. “Even though we have one game on [NIU], that's not nearly enough to get a complete assessment. That's a big part of our scouting, what they've done at other places.”
So, of course, is forgetting about BYU. “That game was awesome, it’s one that we circled on our calendars, just like everybody else does,” said Ute cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah. “But everything is NIU now.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT UTAH
At Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: Saturday, 11 a.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: NIU 1-0; Utah 1-0.
Series history: Utah leads, 1-0.
Last meeting: Utah 17, NIU 6 (2018).
About the Huskies: NIU quarterback Ross Bowers is a transfer from California, where he was the Bears’ starter in 2017 and passed for 200 yards in a 33-20 win over Weber State. He has never faced Utah. Bowers passed for 299 yards in the Huskies’ 24-10, season-opening defeat of Illinois State. …This is the first of three September games vs. Power Five opponents for NIU, followed by visits to Nebraska and Vanderbilt.
About the Utes: Utah used 16 defensive players and 23 offensive players in last week’s 30-12 win over BYU. … The Utes haven’t lost to a Group of Five opponent since a 2012 overtime defeat at Utah State. Wyoming is on Utah’s 2020 schedule, in Laramie. … For the first time, Utah is playing seven Saturday home games in 2019. … Idaho State, Utah’s next opponent, opened the season Thursday with a 38-13 victory over Division II member Western Colorado.