Nati Harnik, AP
Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith (15) sacks Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee during game in Lincoln, Neb., Sept. 16, 2017.

DEKALB, Ill. — For a variety of reasons, Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith is one of Utah’s primary concerns heading into Saturday’s game at Huskie Stadium. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound junior, in fact, probably tops the list. Sutton led the nation in quarterback pressures (78), tackles for loss (29.5) and sacks (14) last season.

"He is quick. He has a relentless motor and was a first-team All-American last year,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He has a lot of desire and is passionate. He isn't the biggest guy, but he is productive."

Utah offensive line coach Jim Harding has similar thoughts about the reigning Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Harding noted that Smith has an unbelievable motor and is a really good speed rusher who uses his hands well and is slippery.

We’ve just got to be ready to play.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley

“My understanding is he used to be a running back, so he’s got really good elite speed for a defensive end,” Harding said. “So we’re going to have to do a good job of keeping the width of the pocket, but more so we’ve just got to do a good job sustaining blocks because this kid has a really good motor.”

Smith had five tackles, including a sack, in last week’s 33-7 season-opening loss at Iowa. He also forced a fumble. Although the Huskies were unable to keep things close after trailing just 3-0 with eight minutes to go in the third quarter, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley noted that they do a good job of swarming to the ball. The Huskies, he continued, can stop the run and have a good secondary.

“We’ve just got to be ready to play,” Huntley added.

Utah’s offense got off to a sluggish start in last week’s 41-10 win over Weber State. The Utes wound up with 587 yards of total offense. Huntley said they did a good job of staying poised.

“It shows that we’ve got a pretty good team and we work together in a long stretch,” he explained. “It’s just we’ve got to clean up the beginning.”

Offensive line coach Jim Harding also emphasized the importance of coming out ready to play, citing that Northern Illinois is a really good opponent.

“We can’t afford to start slow,” Harding said. “We have to play more consistent up front.”

While containing Smith is a priority, Northern Illinois has other defenders on Utah’s radar. Senior cornerback Albert Smalls had an interception against Iowa last week. The Huskies gave up just 143 yards passing in the setback as the Hawkeyes completed 13 of 25 passes. Junior linebacker Kyle Pugh made a team-high nine tackles, while junior safety Mykelti Williams was second with eight.

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On offense, Northern Illinois will face a Utah defense that limited Weber State to 59 yards last week. The Huskies managed 211 at Iowa. The lone points they scored came with 2:12 left to play on a 10-yard touchdown throw from sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers to senior receiver Jauan Wesley. Freshman running back Jordan Nettles was the team’s leading rusher with 74 yards on 13 carries.

The Huskies, who were picked to finish first in the Mid-American Conference West Division, are in the midst of a tough stretch of their schedule. After hosting Utah, they open MAC play at home against Central Michigan. Then comes a trip to Florida State.

“They are a very physical team, hard-nosed and disciplined,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. ”We have a challenge ahead of us.

Since 2004, Northern Illinois has made 11 bowl appearances.