Utes in review: Tyler Huntley’s downfield passing will be vital in Utah’s Pac-12 games

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Bryan Thompson (19) is tackled by Northern Illinois Huskies cornerback Devin Haney (12), after catching a Tyler Huntley pass for a 38-yard gain in Utah's 35-17 win.

During another 18-point victory for Utah, quarterback Tyler Huntley reached a statistical point against Northern Illinois that matched his final passing numbers from the season opener vs. BYU: 13 completions in 16 attempts.

The difference? Huntley's arm had accounted for 200 yards at that stage of Saturday's 35-17 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium, compared with 106 yards in Provo.

Ute coach Kyle Whittingham had talked about the need for more downfield passing, and Huntley delivered against the Huskies. He finished 14 of 19 for 214 yards and one touchdown, in addition to running for a score. He received the country’s highest grade Saturday in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating.
Utah will need that level of passing production in Pac-12 play. As NIU proved against a makeshift Utah offensive line missing two key players, the yards won’t always come easily for Ute running back Zack Moss. The Huskies were preoccupied with stopping Moss, who ran for 80 yards on 18 carries (he gained 60 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus). Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig had some alternatives in a 407-yard showing that Whittingham reviewed as “not great; good.”

Huntley posted six completions of 22 yards or longer (compared with one at BYU) and eight first downs via passing (vs. two at BYU). The Huskies’ aggressive defense dictated that approach. “We did what [NIU] asked us to do, which was throw the ball,” Huntley said.

More of that strategy will come into play in the Pac-12, beginning Sept. 20 at USC.

(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.

Three takeaways

• The coin toss is critical.

Utah has won the toss in each game and, in essence, chosen to receive the second-half kickoff. Both times, the Utes produced touchdown drives to begin the third quarter, asserting themselves after leading by three or four points at halftime.

In Saturday's case, the offense already was humming in the second quarter, and Utah's six-play, 70-yard drive extended the theme.

• Northern Illinois is not like Idaho State.

It may be understandable why these two nonconference opponents were lumped together, falling between BYU and USC on the schedule, but NIU is a respected Group of Five program. ISU is an average Big Sky Conference team.

The Utes were not overwhelming Saturday, but the Huskies historically are competitive against Power Five teams. They'll play respectably against Nebraska and Vanderbilt this month. If the Utes take anywhere near as long to subdue ISU, though, that will be alarming.

• USC is not done.

If the biggest development for Utah’s future as of Week 1 was USC’s losing its starting quarterback to a season-ending injury, the Trojans’ response was the top story of Week 2. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis passed for 377 yards in a 45-20 win over then-No. 23 Stanford. ESPN’s Football Power Index was impressed. The FPI went from favoring USC next week to giving the Utes a 44.5% chance of winning in Los Angeles.

The Utes will have to deal with USC’s three talented receivers. That should be somewhat frightening, after Utah allowed 202 yards passing to NIU in the first half — partly attributable to a 74-yard touchdown that came while safety Julian Blackmon was briefly sidelined with an injury.

California’s 20-19 win at Washington in a weather-delayed game that ended at 2:23 a.m. MDT also is significant, affecting the Pac-12′s College Football Playoff possibilities. The Bears will visit Utah in late October.

Player of the game

Bradlee Anae. The Ute defensive end recorded three sacks, including one that made the Huskies settle for a field goal on their last drive of the first half and two that helped limit NIU to 69 total yards in the second half.

“Bradlee's just refined his game,” Whittingham said. “He was a little bit of a loose cannon when he first got here, as far as assignments and [being] undisciplined. He's really started to play within the framework of the defense, not taking as many chances.”

Play of the game

Huntley's 38-yard pass to Bryan Thompson. The Utes never faced a third-down situation on their opening drive of the second half. On second and 6 from the NIU 43, Huntley found Thompson down the left sideline. Moss ran for a 5-yard score on the next play, effectively ending the game at 28-17, thanks to the Ute defense's improvement in the second half.

Up next

For the eighth time in nine years of Pac-12 membership, the Utes will play an FCS team. Idaho State takes another turn Saturday (2:15 p.m.), after opening the 2014 season in a 56-14 loss at Utah. ISU will receive a $550,000 guarantee for the 160-mile bus ride from Pocatello, Idaho.

The Bengals beat Division II opponent Western Colorado 38-13 in their 2019 opener Thursday.

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