Gordon Monson: Kyle Whittingham and his Utes initially stumble, but their win over Northern Illinois proves most useful

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Demari Simpkins (3) celebrates after scoring a touchdown for the Utes, in football action between Northern Illinois Huskies and Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.

When the Utes walked off the field on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, and likely when they walked on it, they knew their game against Northern Illinois had less to do with the Huskies and more to do with the matter between their own ears and the focus that stemmed from it.

In that respect, it was the perfect Week 2 challenge for them, one that required the kind of mental triggers that will be helpful for them once the schedule, the grind of the week in and week out of the Pac-12, stiffens.

What this was — a 35-17 victory — against NIU was, as it turned out, three points tougher than the betting line, and … most useful.

“It took us a little longer to get control of the game than we would have liked,” Kyle Whittingham said. “… [But] it’s a good win for us.”

Good enough.

“In the second half,” he said, “it was all Utah.”

At its very bones, what else could it have been — a midlevel MAC team coming into the home of the Pac-12 favorite? This thing, at least in some people’s minds, was supposed to be more unbalanced than a worn set of Michelins, a scheduled win not of the embarrassingly stupid nature of what comes in Week 3 against Idaho State, but a test that had the cutline “don’t screw it up” typed under it.

And so, it only seemed as though the Utes might suffer that fate early, as the back end of their defense was beaten, time and again. In the first half, Utah allowed 202 passing yards and held only a 21-17 lead. Among other misadventures, the aforementioned secondary yielded a 74-yard touchdown pass that tied the score at 14.

Not unlike last week’s win over BYU, the Utes found their resolve in the third and fourth quarters. As the game wore on, their powers of concentration not only sharpened, they cut the Huskies down.

“We just played better,” Whittingham said.

“We came out with a more pissed-off attitude,” Bradlee Anae said.

It was far different than the Utes’ showing in Dekalb last season, one in which a pick-six saved their bacon. The performance here was much more offensive in nature, and it had a vibe to it beyond just that. It had an overriding quality that the Utes, while far from flawless initially, were and are bumping toward understanding their own vast and diverse capabilities, that there is a burden, a heavy responsibility they owe themselves, not to anyone else, to capitalize on those abilities, to sustain them, to fulfill them, to use them to become whatever it is they should be.

Utilizing defense, offense, whatever.

To not let themselves acquiesce to an outfit like Northern Iowa or Northern Indiana or Northern Illinois, wherever, whatever it is.

No disrespect intended. The guys from the MAC are decent, better than their name suggests. But for the Utes, this was an exercise in self-actualization, one to which coach Abraham Maslow would have given a nod.

Remember what the old coach wrote back in the day on the marker board: “What a [team] can be, it must be.” Something about a hierarchy of needs.

As mentioned, Saturday’s actualization started in reverse, with the defense struggling. Not enough pressure in the first half was being put on NIU quarterback Ross Bowers, who hit 15 of 21 throws. Blown coverages didn’t help.

Over that initial span, what was being actualized was the possibility of an upset.

There was this, though — among the Utes’ troubles in the back end, their offense was being counted on to bring the thing home. A happy eventuality considering they will need to do the same against some future opponents, such as Washington State.

As the Utes went up, 21-14, they never trailed or were tied again.

Through and from that juncture, it was Bill Walsh’s hierarchy of needs, not Maslow’s.

Tyler Huntley threw for 214 yards, Zack Moss ran for 80. All told, the offense had a 214/193 yardage split, which pleased Whittingham.

The offense, he said, “was good, not great, but good.”

The defense came alive, shutting down and out the Huskies’ attack en route. Julian Blackmon’s interception set up Huntley’s TD pass to Jaylen Dixon early in the fourth, finishing the scoring.

It was enough actualization for one day, leaving room for more needs to be met in the weeks ahead.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.