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2019 Week 2 MAC Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies at #13 Utah Utes

After meeting last season in DeKalb, the Huskies fly out to Salt Lake City to take on the Utes.

NCAA Football: Utah at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday the Northern Illinois Huskies won their first game under Thomas Hammock, a 24-10 win against Illinois State. This week, however, might prove to be their toughest test of the season as they travel to Salt Lake City to take on a top-15 team - the 13th-ranked Utah Utes.


Game Info

When: Saturday, September 7 at 12:00 p.m. (CST)
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium - Salt Lake City, Utah (45,807 capacity)
Watch: PAC-12 Network
Odds: Utah is favored by 22.5 points and has a 95.5% chance to win according to ESPN’s FPI


Series History

This is just the second meeting between the two schools, with the first coming last season at Huskie Stadium. Utah is 1-0 against NIU after winning a tight game last season. The Huskies couldn’t do anything on offense but kept it close all game before a late pick-six bumped the score to 17-6 and allowed Utah to escape DeKalb with a victory.

For Utah, this is just their second ever game against a MAC opponent while it will be NIU’s third game against a PAC-12 team. NIU is 0-2 against the conference, losing to Utah a year ago and to Oregon State back in 1996.


The Utes

Quick Facts:
Record: 1-0 (2018: 9-5)
Last Week: 30-12 win over BYU
Coach: Kyle Whittingham (15th season, all at Utah), 121-61 overall record
Offense/Defense Scheme: Spread/4-2

The Utes entered 2019 ranked as the #14th team in the country and opened the season against their rivals, the BYU Cougars, last week. Utah took a 9-6 lead into halftime before exploding for 21 unanswered points in the second half and pushing out to a 30-6 lead. BYU would add a touchdown later but it was too little to late.

Offensively, Utah is a more run-heavy spread offense. They ran the ball a ton verses the Cougars, attempting 48 rushes to just 16 passes. And last season they ran the ball just under 60% of the time - rushing 563 times while attempting just 408 passes.

Senior running back Zack Moss will get the brunt of the carries. Last week he pushed his way to 187 yards on 29 carries and scored once. In 2018, Moss averaged 6.1 yards per carry and netted 1096 yards and 11 TDs.

When it’s not Moss carrying the ball, quarterback Tyler Huntley is a threat to run or pass.

Huntley, a senior who has started the previous two years for Utah, rushed eight times last week for 39 yards and threw for 106 yards, completing 13 of his 16 pass attempts. In 2018 he appeared in nine games and amassed 1788 passing yards, 304 rushing yards and had 16 total touchdowns (12 passing, 4 rushing) and just six interceptions.

Huntley will spread the ball around, as seven different Utes had a reception last week and, with Utah returning their five leading receivers from a season ago, he’ll have plenty of options to go to.

Last week Demari Simpkins and Brant Kuithe were his main targts, hauling in seven of the 13 completions. But look for Britain Covey and Jaylen Dixon to also make some plays at wide out. Dixon and Simpkins are also threats to run the ball on jet sweeps, each having a carry last week.

The Utes are a solid offensive team...but the strength of this team is their defense. And that’s after they lost their four leading tacklers from last year.

Utah forced three turnovers in the game and actually scored as many defensive touchdowns as they did offensive ones against BYU. The Utes had two interceptions returned for touchdowns - a 58-yard one by linebacker Francis Bernard in the second quarter and a 39-yard pick six early in the fourth.

They generate a lot of pressure at the point of attack and had six TFL and a sack against the Cougars.

Up front, senior defensive tackle Leki Fotu powers through the middle while sophomore defensive end Mika Tafua attacks from the outside. Last week they each had four tackles and combined for half of Utah’s TFL. Tafua added a sack and a fumble recovery as well.

Senior defensive back Julian Blackmon leads the Utah secondary, which is full of ball hawks. Blackmon, who was sixth on the team in tackles last season, had a team-high five tackles (four solo) last week. He also added a pass break up and that 39-yard interception returned for a touchdown.

The middle of the field will be patrolled by linebackers Bernard and Devin Lloyd. Bernard had four tackles, 1.5 TFL, and a pick six last week while Lloyd tied Blackmon with five tackles (3 solo).

On special teams, kicker Andrew Strauch has had some issues already. He missed a 25-yard field goal attempt and a PAT last week but hit a 41-yad field goal and his second PAT attempt. In the fourth quarter he was replaced by freshman Jadon Redding, who hit Utah’s final two PAT tries.


The Huskies

Quick Facts:
Record: 1-0 (2018: 8-6)
Last Week: 24-10 win over Illinois State
Coach: Thomas Hammock (1st season), 1-0 overall record
Offense/Defense Scheme: Multiple/4-3

Last week we found out that former PAC-12 player and Cal Golden Bear transfer, Ross Bowers, had won the starting quarterback job for the Huskies.

And Coach Hammock didn’t shy away from using him, as Bowers had 33 passing attempts in his debut. He completed 20 of his passes (60.6%) en route to 299 yards, two scores, and an interception.

Halfback Tre Harbison got the majority of the carries, netting 99 yards on 23 attempts. Back up runningbacks, Jordan Nettles and Marcus Jones each had two carries for two yards.

Bowers, like Huntley, spread the ball around nicely - finding eight different receivers last week. His main targets were tight ends Mitchell Brinkman and Daniel Crawford, along with newcomer Tyrice Richie.

Brinkman and Crawford combined for seven catches and 126 yards but it was Richie who did most of the damage. He had three grabs, 102 yards, and both of NIU’s offensive touchdowns.

The O-line seemed to struggle more than usual, allowing two sacks and seven TFL to the Redbirds. It also didn’t open up as many holes for the run game as would be expected, as NIU just averaged 2.6 yards per carry and only 90 total rushing yards.

Against Illinois State, the Huskies had a pretty vanilla looking offense but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed some this week. The Huskies have very little game footage of their offense scheme and could/should use that to their advantage in the upcoming weeks.

That’s a great advantage to have, especially during this three-game streak against P5 teams, as defenses have no tendencies to go on or any idea how the Huskie offense will look week-to-week.

On defense the Huskies looked mostly the same from last year, with one major difference.

The big difference from last year is that NIU just wasn’t able to get much pressure on the quarterback...something they thrived on the past few seasons. NIU managed just one sack and one QB Hurry against ISU, both of which came late in the game.

That being said, they still dominated the line of scrimmage against the run, holding ISU to just 51 yards rushing on 28 carries. Even though this was an FCS squad, the Redbirds are no easy test. They were ranked #10 in the FCS polls, have a huge B1G-caliber offensive line, and one of the best running backs, Jame Robinson, in the lower division. The Huskies smothered Robinson all night, allowing him just 16 yards on 13 carries.

Quintin Wynne and Jack Heflin will need to get more pressure if the Huskies want to slow down this Utes offense and get to Huntley like they did last season (NIU had seven sacks and 14 TFL against Utah last year).

Linebackers Kyle Pugh and Antonio Jones-Davis will be key in the middle of the field. Not only will they have to come up to stop the run again but they’ll also need to be mindful of jet sweeps, motion, and Huntley taking off on a passing play.

If Utah comes out against NIU like they did against BYU, the secondary will need to make stops up near the line of scrimmage while avoiding big passing plays when Huntley opts to throw.

Sophomore cornerback Jalen McKie has been the best at forcing takeaways the past 13 games, leading NIU with three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns (including one last week). But safeties Mykelti Williams and Marshe Terry (a transfer from UConn) will also be a crucial in the secondary, as the last line of Huskie defense.


Prediction

There’s always that cautious optimism whenever NIU takes on a P5 squad. Upsets have happened before and will happen again.

The Utes certainly have a solid offensive attack and a great defense (that can score just as many points as their offense) but this game will probably be closer than the 22.5 point spread indicates.

I certainly want to see an NIU upset, and keeping it close is certainly possible...

Who knows, we could see a whole new offensive game plan this week. But, after seeing the offensive line struggle against Illinois State and the defense not being able to get much pressure on the Redbirds’ quarterback, I think the Huskies keep it close for a while before falling to the Utes.

NIU - 17
Utah - 34