DEKALB, Illinois — That was close, a little too close.
The Utes went into MAC (Mid-American Conference) country and defeated the Northern Illinois Huskies 17-6 Saturday night, improving to 2-0 on the season.
The game was much tighter than the final score indicates, however, and, while a win is a win — especially on the road — the victory left a lot to be desired.
Utah was once again plagued by a slow start and trailed Northern Illinois 3-0 at halftime. The Utes eventually managed to turn things around, kind of, and took a 7-3 lead in the third quarter on a short touchdown run by running back Zack Moss.
Utah added 10 additional points to its total in the fourth quarter, courtesy of a Matt Gay field goal and a game-sealing pick-six by linebacker Chase Hansen.
Once again, the defense was lights-out, with Hansen and fellow linebacker Cody Barton putting on a show. The secondary was excellent as well, particularly cornerbacks Julian Blackmon and Jaylon Johnson, who helped limit the Huskies to just 111 yards through the air at an average clip of 3.4 yards per catch.
Offensively, Utah struggled immensely, despite quarterback Tyler Huntley completing 20 of 31 passes for 286 yards. Huntley was harassed all night long by the Northern Illinois defensive front, notably All-American Sutton Smith.
One of the lone bright spots on offense was wide receiver Britain Covey. He finished the game with eight receptions for a total of 148 yards, both of which were team-highs.
Even special teams left something to be desired, which now makes for back-to-back weeks of curious play from what has traditionally been one of the team's greatest strengths.
The grades are in, and once again it was a mixed bag for Utah.
Thanks goodness for Covey.
If not for the 5-foot-8 magician, Utah’s offense would have had one of its worst outings in recent memory.
Truth be told, even with Covey’s efforts, the offense struggled for much of the night.
Huntley finished with solid stats, but those statistics belie what was an inconsistent and at times frustrating performance.
Huntley was good enough when he connected with Covey or freshman wide receiver Jaylen Dixon — Dixon finished with two catches for 50 yards — and his play during the Utes’ third-quarter touchdown drive was commendable. He was accurate in the passing game, ran the ball well and gave the ball up at opportune times.
Aside from that scoring drive, however, Huntley struggled. He was under pressure for most of the game — much of the fault for that lay with the Utes’ offensive line, though Huntley had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long — and, by the end of it, he called his own number often, with little success.
The offensive line had a miserable night and could not stop the Huskies from getting pressure on the quarterback. Right guard Jordan Agasiva could be singled out, as he was called for holding three times, but it was a collective failing by all the big men up front.
Zack Moss had a solid game rushing the ball and finished with 66 yards on 4.1 yards per carry. The total carries were not there, however, as he was often utilized as an extra blocker, or simply ignored by Huntley.
The receiving corps, meanwhile, looked rather similar to the group that played against the Wildcats.
There was some excellent play, courtesy of Covey, Dixon and Bronson Boyd. Samson Nacua made up for his failings against Weber State by hauling in two catches for 23 yards and most importantly didn’t have a drop.
He was alone in that, however, as Utah’s receivers dropped more than a few passes Saturday night, something that is becoming an unfortunate habit.
Overall, Utah’s offense disappointed and improvement along the offensive line is an absolute must.
As has been the case throughout Kyle Whittingham’s tenure as head coach at Utah, the defense was by far the strength of the team.
While the statistics do not match the excellence achieved in the season opener — it is still incredible that Utah held Weber State to just 59 total yards — the Utes were arguably more impressive defensively Saturday night at Huskie Stadium.
Northern Illinois finished with just 228 total yards, 111 through the air and 117 on the ground. After Huskie quarterback Marcus Childers got a little banged up, the Northern Illinois rushing attack faded completely, as Utah held Tre Harbison to just 63 total yards.
The secondary was once again the clear strength of the defense. Childers completed just 18 of 33 passes and, aside from a string of consecutive completions to Jauan Wesley, rarely had any success through the air.
Blackmon had multiple pass breakups, and Johnson had upwards of 10 tackles. Safeties Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard were excellent as well, particularly Ballard, who forced a fumble.
The defensive line was solid overall, led by John Penisini and Hauati Pututau in the middle. Bradlee Anae and the rest of the Utes' defensive ends weren’t bad, either, as they pressured Childers often.
No one shined more than the linebacker duo of Hansen and Barton, however.
Barton was dominant early on, particularly in the run game, and Hansen came on late with a fumble recovery, a huge sack and the game-sealing interception.
Overall, Utah couldn’t have played much better defensively.
Something is off with Utah’s special teams.
Matt Gay, the reigning Lou Groza Award winner, had yet another field goal blocked — the fault seemed to lie with Gay rather than the offensive line — and he sent an additional attempt wide left.
The Utes also had yet another turnover on special teams, again on a punt return with Covey receiving.
Overall, the team totaled just nine return yards, all on punts as they didn’t even attempt a kick return for the second week in a row.
There were positives as well, however.
Gay did drive home the last field goal he attempted, redeeming himself, and punter Mitch Wishnowsky successfully completed five punts, averaging 41.4 yards per punt.
All told, Utah’s special teams were yet again not up to the program’s standards, but there is some positive momentum.
Utah won and will head into next week’s showdown with Washington undefeated.
The Utes went on the road, in a hostile environment, and took down a good team. They have now won 21 straight non-conference games and held an opponent without a touchdown for the first time in two years.
Covey was great, Moss was solid, and Huntley showed flashes of what he can be.
The defense was outstanding and this time created turnovers, including a fumble and an interception. The secondary continues to impress, seemingly a new player each week, and Hansen is clearly quite comfortable at his new linebacker position.
As for the defensive line, Sack Lake City may not be back yet, but the group is solid.
A win is a win is a win, and the Utes will take this one, but they have some work to do ahead of what should be one of the biggest games of the year next week.