DEKALB, Ill. — When it comes to taking his team on the road, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has it down. After more than 13 years at the helm, it’s almost an exact science. And that’s a good thing considering Saturday’s game at Northern Illinois will be the first away from Rice-Eccles Stadium for 30 of the 70 players on the travel squad. Whittingham noted it’ll be a new experience for them and that they’ve got to know how to handle themselves.
“You go on a road trip for one reason and one reason only and that is to win a game. It is a business trip," he said. “There’s no sightseeing or any of that stuff.”
Whittingham explained that the biggest challenge on the first trip of the season is to indoctrinate the younger players as to how it’s done.
Utah has won five straight road openers in the Pac-12 era. That run includes two wins over BYU in Provo (2013, 2017), as well as victories at Michigan (2014), Fresno State (2015) and San Jose State (2016).
The next challenge comes at 23,595-seat Huskie Stadium. Despite the small venue, Whittingham and the Utes are sticking to their preparation model. They even practiced with crowd noise over loudspeakers Thursday in Salt Lake City. It’s part of the plan for every away game.
“We don’t have a huge stadium. We’ve got 47,000 or whatever and we’re one of the loudest in the country,” Whittingham said. “So it’s not necessarily the amount of people. It’s are they right on top of you? Is it a capacity stadium? And that type of thing.”
Playing at Northern Illinois is something new for the Utes. The teams, in fact, have never met anywhere.
“We could play in the parking lot for all I care,” said Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley. “A game is a game and we’ve just got to come out with a win.”
Huntley vows the Utes take things one week at a time and won’t take any team for granted. As such, there’s a determination to “go and play their best game” this week.
Despite opening the season with a 41-10 win over Weber State last week at home, the Utes insist there’s room for improvement.
“I'm feeling decent about the outing,” Whittingham said. “It wasn't great, but nothing is ever perfect."
Offensively, Whittingham noted there were too many drops and the routes were not crisp enough in the passing game. He also said the team needs to be more disciplined and sharp in order to avoid “drive killers.”
Utah netted 587 yards against Weber State. Huntley threw four touchdown passes and running back Zack Moss ran for 150 yards. Britain Covey and Siaosi Mariner were other bright spots with 79 and 73 receiving yards, respectively.
Defensively, the Utes gave up just 59 yards on 53 plays. The Wildcats managed only three first downs and were forced to punt 12 times.
“Honestly, it was our coach putting us in good positions,” cornerback Julian Blackmon said in praising defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “We just played the way we practiced and we made plays where we made plays in practice.”
The lack of yardage surrendered, Blackmon acknowledged, was “honestly incredible.” He added that it had very little to do with one person’s athletic ability and everything to do with everybody’s mentality.
Defensive tackle John Penisini, who led the Utes with three tackles for loss, cautioned that they can’t ride that wave too high.
“We’ve just got to keep getting better, keep improving,” he said.
Utah kicks off Pac-12 play on Saturday, Sept. 15, at home against preseason favorite Washington.
EXTRA POINTS: Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith led the nation in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (29.5) last season ... This is the first time Utah has ever played a team from the Mid-American Conference ... The Utes have won 20 straight non-conference games, dating back to an overtime loss at Utah State in 2012 ... The Huskies are coming off a 33-7 loss at Iowa last Saturday ... Northern Illinois plays at BYU on Oct. 27.
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at Northern Illinois (0-1)
Huskie Stadium — DeKalb, Illinois
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. (MT)
Radio: ESPN 700AM