Takeaways: Utah vs. Northern Illinois
The University of Utah moved to 2-0 on Saturday, behind four rushing touchdowns from the Hallandale Trio, as the offense began show a little more of what’s in store for the 2019 season. After a spotty performance early on, the Utes’ defense came to life in the second half, shutting down the Northern Illinois Huskies’ offense. Despite the Huskies making a game of it, early on, there were plenty of things to like in the victory.
Here are the takeaways from the game:
Thompson provides a glimpse of what they’ve been waiting for
Hello Bryan Thompson! Rest up Bryan Thompson! We’ve been waiting for you Bryan Thompson! Finally healthy, the Utes unleashed their lethal vertical threat on Saturday. After two years of nagging injuries, Thompson, the Utes’ prized 2017 receiver recruit put on a show in fall camp, leading to a starting role for this season.
With the Utes finally willing to open the offense up a little more and dial up their passing game, Thompson was the prime beneficiary with two receptions for 66 yards. The only thing that stopped him against NIU was a hit to his helmet on what would have been his third reception. Will he play against Idaho State this upcoming week? Whether cleared health wise or not, it could be wise to rest him up for USC in two weeks.
With health on his side, it was clear to see on Saturday that next to a healthy Britain Covey, that Thompson is Utah’s most well-rounded receiving option. Whether it’s taking the top off of a defense or a mid-level route, Thompson has the size, speed, and hands to be a Pac-12 nightmare.
Rest up, Bryan, and get ready to introduce yourself to Pac-12 defenses.
The defense tightens up in the second half
Kyle Whittingham and the Utes expected a tough game from Northern Illinois again this year, but most people probably expected a defensive battle similar to last year's low scoring affair. Instead, Utah went into halftime with a 21-17 lead, highlighted by a 74 yard NIU touchdown pass in the middle of the second quarter to tie the game at 14–no need to sound the alarm unless you want to worry about the depth chart questions behind Julián Blackmon.
Senior defensive end Bradlee Anae mentioned in a post-game interview the focus on executing. "We wanted to play harder as a unit," Anae said. "We made the adjustments at halftime." Not only did the defense make adjustments, but they simply shut down the Northern Illinois offense in the second half. The NIU offense tallied 233 total yards in the first half and finished the game with 302, meaning the defense stifled the Huskies to only 69 yards in the second half. Going along with four sacks and another Julian Blackmon interception, the Utah defense held NIU to just three first downs and zero third-down conversions in the second half. Anae led the effort with three sacks for the game, two of which were in the second half and forced a fumble.
Even though Utah's Pac-12 title hopes are focused on how the offense performs this season, the defense must hold up to the expectations of being elite like they were in the second half if they want to continue to be in the conversation.
Huntley’s critics are beginning to grow more and more quiet
Throughout the week, there was plenty of hand-wringing about Tyler Huntley's performance against BYU, despite us saying over and over again that the lack of a passing game was part of the game plan against BYU. After all, why would you throw the ball and risk a turnover when your running back is averaging 6.5 yards per carry against a defense that was only rushing three most of the time? Huntley proved us right with a great performance throwing the ball against Northern Illinois, totaling over 250 yards of offense and scoring two touchdowns. Huntley's total numbers weren't astronomical, but once again, his efficiency was off the charts. He led the entire nation in QBR for week two, and was the main reason that Utah took a lead into halftime when their defense was initially struggling.
Huntley probably won't put up a ton of passing yards next week, because once again, Utah won't need to show much of their offensive playbook to beat Idaho State. But once conference play starts, watch out.
Clean football is a beautiful sight to see
For the second straight week, the Utah offense did not give up a sack or turn the ball over to the opposing team. It is also worth noting that the Utes only had one penalty in Saturday’s defeat of Northern Illinois. Given that these first two opponents were inferior to Utah, it was that much more important for the Utes to minimize the mental errors to not give these teams any hope. Last year, the Utes gave up six sacks in a nail biter against NIU and now for the second straight game, Huntley has been able to remain upright in the pocket throughout the entire game. The minimal amount of turnovers, penalties and sacks is a testament to this team’s focus and determination to be great this season. The coaches have prepared them well and have made this a priority. It is unrealistic to expect this every week from the Utes, especially as the competition increases, but this mental performance by the Utes has been impressive.
The offensive line had question marks before the start of the year, and even with backups playing, they have not made many mistakes. Huntley also has been calm and collected in the pocket which has benefited his protection. Moving forward, the only concern is how this team is going to react to adversity and how they are going to perform against a better opponent which will require that much more focus.