SALT LAKE CITY — The sun was out for the morning game, but it took the No. 13 Utah football team some time to wake up before claiming a 35-17 win over the visiting Northern Illinois Huskies Saturday.
The Huskies gave Utah (2-0) an early scare, but the Utes prevailed in the end despite some miscues and struggles on both sides of the ball in the first half of the game. Utah held the Huskies scoreless in the second half, while Utah scored two touchdowns in the second half to extend a 4-point halftime lead.
“It took us a little longer to get control of the game than we would have liked, but we eventually got control there in the second half,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “The first half was kind of back and forth. We didn't play very well on defense in the first half.”
Northern Illinois (1-1) quarterback Ross Bowers came out, guns blazing to open up the game and lead the offense to two touchdown drives early, including the game’s first score in the final minutes of the first quarter. The former Cal quarterback struck first on a 9-yard rushing touchdown that finished with a leaping flip over defenders for the score.
“They scored on their first drive in our stadium and we were ticked off,” Utah senior defensive end Bradlee Anae said. “We wanted to play harder as a unit.”
Bowers later found receiver Spencer Tears streaking down the sideline for a 74-yard touchdown pass. Tears followed up the touchdown with an upside down “U” hand gesture to the crowd as the Huskies proved they could hang in a during a game where they were underdogs by three touchdowns.
Utah’s offense, which was missing two key starters on the offensive line, eventually settled into its game plan late in the first quarter and managed to score on three consecutive drives by the “Hallendale Trio.” Receiver Demari Simpkins was the first to score for Utah on a fly sweep that faked out the entire Northern Illinois defense for a 14-yard rushing touchdown.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss scored on consecutive drives, including a QB keeper by Huntley for a 16-yard rushing touchdown and a 15-yard bulldozing rushing touchdown by Moss.
“We just didn't play our best football, defensively, in the first half,” Whittingham said. “Offensively, however, we did; we played very well. From start to finish, I thought Tyler was outstanding. He did a great job throwing the football — he was accurate.”
Huntley finished the game throwing for 214 yards and one touchdown on 14-of-19 passing, and 38 rushing yards on two carries. Huntley’s passing touchdown against Northern Illinois was the first of the season for the senior on a 14-yard pass to receiver Jaylen Dixon.
Utah’s passing game emerged against the Huskies as Northern Illinois stacked the box and made it difficult for Utah to establish a sound running game. Moss, though, led the team in rushing yards and finished with 80 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries for the day.
Moss said it was tough to establish the run game effectively against the Huskies because the defense “fall off their blocks really well. They swarmed to the ball really well and they were able to get around our guys a little.”
The Huskies entered the game with a Top 15 defense, according to SP+, and forced Utah to a more balanced approach than a run-first option. Utah finished the game with 407 yards of total offense and a fairly balanced 214 passing yards to 193 rushing yards.
Utah finished the game without a turnover, making it two consecutive weeks where Utah has been positive in the turnover margin. Senior safety Julian Blackmon recorded his second interception of the season in the fourth quarter in Northern Illinois territory, which set up the Dixon touchdown.
The Utes return to action Saturday at 2:15 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium as they welcome FCS opponent Idaho State to close out nonconference play for the season.