Utes coach pressures offensive line to play better in short-yardage situations, after Northern Illinois repeatedly stuffed them

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) scores a touchdown for the Utes, in football action between Northern Illinois Huskies and Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham credited Northern Illinois' defensive scheme and blamed his offensive linemen for the Utes' struggles in short-yardage situations Saturday.

Ten times, the Utes had 1 or 2 yards to go for a first down. They converted only two, although Zack Moss ran 16 yards for a touchdown on a third-and-1 play in Utah’s 35-17 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The No. 11 Utes were playing with a makeshift offensive line, amid injuries to starting center Orlando Umana and guard Johnny Maea, who’s listed as a co-starter. Paul Toala went from co-starting guard to center and Nick Ford moved from tackle to guard in the alignment, with Simi Moala starting at tackle.


Saturday, 2:15 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks.

NIU’s scheme called for a lot of blitzing on running plays, with linebackers and safeties consistently finding gaps. Other than Moss’ 16-yard burst and his 4-yard run for a first down, Utah netted minus-4 yards on short-yardage running plays and quarterback Tyler Huntley threw an incompletion on fourth and 1.

“We've got to do a better job with the offensive line of keeping their eyes up and their heads up,” Whittingham said Monday, during his weekly news conference.

The Huskies’ movement up front “typically is a feast-or-famine type of a defensive scheme,” Whittingham said. “They did a nice job with those blitzes; we did not do a nice job of picking them up.”


Utah’s offensive plays vs. Northern Illinois with 1 or 2 yards to go:

2nd/2 – Zack Moss run for no gain.

3rd/2 – Moss run for no gain.

2nd/2 – Devin Brumfield run for 1 yard.

3rd/1 – Moss run for 4 yards.

2nd/1 – Moss run for no gain.

3rd/1 – Moss run for 16-yard touchdown.

3rd/2 – Moss run for 1 yard.

4th/1 – Tyler Huntley pass incomplete.

3rd/2 – Moss run for minus-4 yards.

2nd/1 – TJ Green run for minus-2 yards.

The Utes went 5 for 5 in scoring touchdowns on drives inside the 20-yard line, though. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig called a sweep for receiver Demari Simpkins and a zone-read option for Huntley, resulting in Utah’s first two scores.

Whittingham didn’t directly address the status of those injured offensive linemen (defensive lineman Leki Fotu also was held out vs. NIU). But he described his team as generally healthy going into its last nonconference game of the season, Saturday vs. Idaho State.

That meeting with an FCS opponent should create opportunities for second-string players. Junior quarterback Drew Lisk played in the fourth quarter against NIU, ahead of former fill-in starter Jason Shelley. Ludwig’s decision was based on “performance in practice” and “a better week of preparation,” Whittingham said, noting the No. 2 position this week again is subject to competition.

Whittingham likes the work of Huntley through two games. The senior is ranked No. 11 in ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating system, which Whittingham endorses as the best gauge of a QB's contribution to the team. Huntley had the highest rating in the country Saturday, when he completed 14 of 19 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown and ran three times for 38 yards and a score.

Huntley has not thrown an interception in two games (with 35 attempts) and Utah is the only FBS team that has not lost a turnover or allowed a sack this season. Whittingham credits Huntley with avoiding the rush and getting rid of the ball. “He’s making good decisions,” Whittingham said. “He’s being patient. He’s not trying to force the ball into spots where he shouldn’t force it.”

In the QBR formula, Huntley ranks behind Pac-12 quarterbacks Anthony Gordon of Washington State and Kedon Slovis of USC. The No. 24 Trojans and No. 20 WSU are Utah's first two Pac-12 opponents.

Slovis' 377-yard, three-TD passing night in a 45-20 win over Stanford was “very impressive,” Whittingham said, “but we'll worry about that next week.”

This week is all about Idaho State. The Bengals, who opened the season with a 38-13 defeat of Division II opponent Western Colorado, have some outstanding receivers. Tanner Conner and Michael Dean combined to make 18 receptions for 336 yards and three touchdowns in the opener, and Mitch Gueller is one one of the Big Sky Conference’s top returning players.

They’re not quite in a class with USC’s Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown, though. As Whittingham said, those players will become Utah’s problem next week.