Utah's offense thrived in the first half Saturday, giving the Ute defense an opportunity to get some traction against Northern Illinois.
When's the last time that happened?
No. 13 Utah “took a little longer to get control of the game than we would have liked,” coach Kyle Whittingham said, after the Utes eventually asserted themselves in a 35-17 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The Ute offense scored touchdowns on four straight drives in the middle of the game, not counting an end-of-half sequence, and the defense held NIU scoreless in the second half. And if it took awhile for Utah to subdue the Huskies, this episode was less agonizing than a 17-6 road victory over NIU last September, when the Utes needed an interception return for a touchdown in the last three minutes to feel comfortable.
This time, the defense thanked the offense. “They're the reason why were in the game at halftime,” said Ute safety Julian Blackmon.
Utah’s touchdown drive to open the third quarter added to a 21-17 lead and Blackmon’s interception led to a clinching score in the fourth quarter. Defensive end Bradlee Anae recorded two of his three sacks in the second half as the Utes held NIU to 69 total yards, after allowing 233 yards before halftime.
That total included an 88-yard drive and a 74-yard TD pass, while Blackmon was briefly sidelined with an injury. NIU quarterback Ross Bowers, a transfer from California, passed for 202 yards in the first half. But he threw for only 27 yards in the second half, while losing 20 yards via sacks.
In the second half, Utah's defense “came out with a more pissed-off attitude,” Anae said.
The Ute offense was fairly consistent, even while having to replace two offensive line starters, due to injury. Paul Toala replaced Orlando Umana at center, Nick Ford moved from tackle to Johnny Maea’s spot at guard and Simi Moala became the right tackle. Whittingham credited the line with “a good showing,” although the Huskies’ blitzes on running plays created some problems.
UTAH 35, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 17
• No. 13 Utah holds Northern Illinois to 69 total yards in the second half of a 35-17 win Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
• Florida high school teammates Demari Simpkins, Tyler Huntley and Zach Moss run for Utah’s three second-quarter touchdowns.
• The announced attendance (45,919) is Utah’s 58th straight sellout, but coach Kyle Whittingham took note of the empty seats for the 11 a.m. kickoff.
The Utes recorded only two first downs on nine running plays when they needed to gain 2 yards or fewer. The Huskies “swarm to the ball really good,” said Utah’s Zack Moss, who rushed for 80 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. “They’re an undersized defense, so they moved pretty quickly to get around our guys a little bit.”
Ute quarterback Tyler Huntley exploited NIU's aggressiveness, though. After BYU often dropped eight defenders into coverage in Utah's 30-12, season-opening win, Huntley got much more value from his 14-of-19 passing against NIU. Huntley passed for 214 yards and a touchdown to Jaylen Dixon, after posting only 106 yards in Provo.
“For us to stop the run, we need to try to get more guys to line of scrimmage and give ourselves a chance,” said NIU coach Thomas Hammock. “The quarterback did a nice job of delivering the ball in spots.”
Utah didn't have a turnover or allow a sack for the second game in a row, and the offense didn't commit any penalties.
That level of efficiency was necessary for the Utes to take care of their Group of Five opponent. NIU had Utah’s respect after last September’s battle. The different flavor this time stemmed from the Huskies’ offense. That group matched its opening-game total of 17 points (against an FCS opponent) in the first half vs. Utah, taking an early lead and then responding each time the Utes seemingly were about to take command.
Ute defensive lineman Leki Fotu was held out of the game with an injury, but Blackmon's health may have been the defense's biggest variable. He spent some time in Utah's new, inflatable medical tent on the sideline in the second quarter, but returned to stabilize the secondary in the second half.
“We adjusted … and we were ready for everything they had and we shut everything down,” Blackmon said.
The second-half response was sufficient enough to give some late-game snaps to a backup quarterback (Drew Lisk), a sign of comfort that never came last season in Utah’s win in DeKalb, Ill.