This Saturday the Northern Illinois Huskies travel to Utah to play the #13 Utah Utes in what is the first of three straight games against P5 schools for the Huskies (two of those teams currently sit in the top-25).
Hustle Belt: Utah and NIU met last year in DeKalb with the game being pretty tightly contested. Are there any major changes the Utes have made since that game that Huskie fans should be looking out for or will Utah look similar to last year’s team?
Shane Roberts: A majority of that Utah team from last season is back, with some notable exceptions, but they have seemingly reloaded at most of the positions that have changed. Utah does have a new offensive coordinator. And by new, kind of old too, as Andy Ludwig is back at Utah after 10 years away. Ludwig was Coach Whittingham’s first OC at Utah, and helped lead the Utes to their 13-0 Sugar Bowl season. So the offense is still feeling things out a bit, but it will be a heavy run based offense behind Zack Moss.
HB: The Utes rely on their ground game to get things moving and RB Zack Moss is averaging over 6 yards per carry since the start of last year. However, in 2018, the Huskies held him to just 66 yards (his lowest of the season) and have had one of the best run defenses in the NCAA recently. How do you see Moss and QB Tyler Huntley attacking this Huskie defense this year? And are there any other players we should be nervous about seeing?
SR: The Utes are going to run at NIU over and over again with one of the best running backs in the country. Sutton Smith caused havoc for the Utes last season, as he did many people, and without him I see the Utes just running at NIU all game long. The game plan last season wasn’t really focused on Moss, at that point of the year at least, and that is not the case this season. I’ll be surprised if Moss doesn’t get 25 carries, and you’ll see some other backs too that will get some carries as well. Utah’s tight ends came on strong as the year went along last year, so you’ll likely see more of them on Saturday, and Britain Covey is always dangerous for any nickel to cover. But at the end of the day, Utah is going to run the ball.
HB: With NIU coming in to this game with a brand new coach and very little game footage, how do you see this defense attacking the Huskies’ offense? Are there any weaknesses NIU could exploit if the Utes aren’t careful?
SR: I think that’s the appropriate word, attack. Utah’s defense is fast and nasty and they’re going to attack from all angles. Utah’s going to put their DBs on islands and come after the QB because that’s what they’ve done for decades. And this may be the best group ever for that. Frankly, there is not really a weakness on Utah’s defense. Many of these players will play on Sunday’s and they are deep at most positions. If NIU was going to attack them, it’d have to be the linebacker group, since they are a little thin, and are still breaking in two new starters there but the dudes there have a ton of skill.
HB: You opened up against your biggest rival and won easily. Any chance you could see this being a potential trap game after the big victory?
SR: That’s always a possibility. But with the way Utah escaped last year, and having an FCS the week after NIU, I don’t think this is a great “trap” game. If it was before USC, maybe, but this is a game that has Utah’s attention. They know full well they escaped by the skin of their teeth last year and I think they’re going to come out to make a point this season, especially with some of the expectations on them.
HB: Finally, what do you see happening Saturday afternoon? Give us your prediction for the game.
SR: I see the Utes winning but NIU putting up a battle before the Utes pull away in the second half. This is a Utah team on a mission, in their home opener, wanting to make a statement.
Utah 35-NIU 13
Thanks again to Shane and Block U for taking the time to answer our questions. And be sure to catch the game this Saturday on the PAC-12 Network when it kicks off at noon (CST).