DEKALB, Ill. — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged not feeling very good following Saturday’s 17-6 victory at Northern Illinois. He explained that “a win is a win” is not his mentality.
It’s more complicated than that.
“My mentality is ‘OK, if we play like this, then what?’ And that won’t be good,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got the Washington Huskies coming into our place, a top 10 team, and the degree of difficulty goes up and we have got to perform much better.”
Whittingham predicted the Utes will do so when they open Pac-12 play this weekend at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“I think they’ll bounce back,” he said.
Utah overcame a lot of adversity en route to a sixth consecutive 2-0 start to a season. NIU proved to be a tough out.
“I think we expected a dog fight. We just didn’t execute at certain times as well as we wanted to — that’s offensively and defensively,” said linebacker Chase Hansen, who capped things off with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:36 to go. “We didn’t get off the field enough on defense and I think on offense we may not have executed as well as we thought.”
Hansen added that he didn’t want to downplay what NIU did, but made it clear that the Utes could play a lot better.
I think we expected a dog fight. We just didn’t execute at certain times as well as we wanted to — that’s offensively and defensively.
Utah linebacker Chase Hansen
That was a common theme after the tight contest. Utah was tackled behind the line of scrimmage 14 times, gave up six sacks, lost two fumbles, missed two field goals (one was blocked) and had a loss on downs. In addition, the Utes were penalized six times for 60 yards. They were held scoreless until a 1-yard touchdown run by Zack Moss with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter.
“We’re putting together a pretty good drive and then all of a sudden we just have one play that’s a drive killer,” said wide receiver Britain Covey. “We’ve got to eliminate those plays and I think we’ll be all right.”
Covey noted that the mistakes limit the range of plays that offensive coordinator Troy Taylor can call.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley said there’s adversity in every game.
“So we’ve just got to be ready to fight back and see it through,” he continued. “I give credit to our defense. They kept us in the game the whole time. They got stops. They got the ball back.”
Huntley praised Hansen for making a great play at the end.
“It was a great team effort,” Huntley said. “But we’ve got to play way better.”
There’s a sense of urgency as Utah embarks on a run of nine consecutive conference games. Whittingham said folks in the football facility will work around the clock trying to fix what’s wrong.
“We’re going to have a hard time winning games going forward unless we get some solutions really quick,” he added.
Whittingham expressed confidence in the players Utah has on offense. The key for them, he explained, is figuring out how to finish drives and just how to perform better.
“We know we’ve got a lot to improve on,” Covey said. “So we’re hungry and we’re a tight-knit group. This isn’t an offense that’s going to wallow in self-pity because of a rough performance.”
Utah did finish with 354 yards of total offense. Besides the touchdown by Moss, the offense put Matt Gay in position to make a 40-yard field goal that made it a 10-6 game with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter.
The defense, though, ultimately stole the show. Hansen’s pick-six highlighted an individual performance that included 12 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and fumble recovery. Linebacker Cody Barton finished with a game-high 13 tackles. Other standouts included cornerback Jaylon Johnson (eight tackles), defensive tackle John Penisini (seven tackles, one sack) and safety Corrion Ballard (two forced fumbles).