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Utah vs NIU: Shades of the Utes won’t be enough for Huskies

Kyle Whittingham, among others, compares this Northern Illinois squad to the Utes. Will they be able to compete on the field?

Following one of the more dominant defensive performances in program history, the Utes will hit the road and look for continued success in Dekalb, Illinois. 

 

The Utes visiting such a small school is “curious” head coach Kyle Whittingham says, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference had you walked the halls of the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center this week.

“It’s strictly business here. We’re preparing how we would for any game,” Whittingham said. “[NIU] is physical up front. I liken them to us a lot as far as their mentality. They’re blue collar, they’re disciplined, they’ll hit you and they are more than willing to slug it out with you. There’s not a chance we’re overlooking these guys.” 

Coach Whitt is right on all accounts. The Huskies are somewhat reminiscent of this Utes team, but there’s a few critical differences: Size, speed and ability to name a few. Three pretty important things. 

NIU is tough and well-coached, they play fast and physical. They don’t, however, have an NFL-caliber back, Leki Fotu like size, playmakers like Britain Covey, elite special teams, so on and so forth. The Huskies are reminiscent of the Utes, but they aren’t the Utes. Maybe, like, the generic brand or discount Utes.

That might sound harsh, but it’s not as much an indictment on NIU as it is a compliment to the guys on the hill. In the near decade since the U joined the Pac-12, Whittingham and the Utes have been able to slowly cultivate a program that’s now reaping the recruiting rewards of joining a power five conference. #MACtion is, how do I say, just downright delightful, but it doesn’t quite give the Huskies the same privileges that the Utes get. 

Enough about the Pac-12, though. The Utes have to get through a possibly rainy weekend in Dekalb before they can turn their attention to the Huskies. The other Huskies, I mean. Not the NIU Huskies, but the Washington Huskies… Let me get this cleared up. The Utes must first play the Northern Illinois Huskies before turning their attention to Pac-12 play against the Washington Huskies. Huskies. Huskies. Huskies. 

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way. Let’s talk football. The thing that makes the Huskies most like the Utes is their defensive physicality. They don’t necessarily employ similar strategies as the Utes, but they often yield similar results because of how they fly around the field and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. 

Husky defensive end… that didn’t sound right. Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith leads the Huskies’ pass rushing attack. The undersized junior uses a relentless motor and tenacity to wreak havoc in the backfield. Smith was atop the college football world in both sacks (14.0) and tackles for loss (30) in 2017. 

Their front four is solid and they return a lot of playmakers in the secondary, but what’s worrisome about the Huskies defense is their discipline. From watching film, you can tell that NIU holds its opponents in check the majority of the time. They also over pursue and find themselves out of position regularly. The Utes should be able to take advantage of that for a few huge plays on Saturday.


Offensively, the Huskies are less reminiscent of the Utes and more so resemble Utah teams of the past with up-and-down QB play and inconsistent offense. NIU sophomore QB Marcus Childers is expected to be improved in his second stint, but if week one against Iowa is any indication, he won’t have much luck against the NCAA’s top D. Childers struggled with the pressure and speed of Iowa’s defense, amassing just 105 yards on 25 attempts. This, against a Hawkeyes unit that doesn’t quite seem to be on the same level as Utah’s. 

Predictions

I expect NIU to be better than they were in week one. I expect the small atmosphere to be a little bit of an adjustment for the Utes. I don’t expect it to be enough. If Utah can follow Coach Whittingham’s lead and ‘just take care of business,” they shouldn’t have any issues dispatching the pesky Huskies. 

I think the Utes physicality and size will wear down the Huskies interiors fairly early and this one could even get out of hand. 

Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN): Utah 38 – 9 NIU

Bill Riley (@espn700bill): Utah 34 – 10 NIU

Ben Anderson (@benshoops): Utah 41 – 10 NIU

Kyle Gunther (@GuntherESPN700): Utah 35 – 7 NIU

JP Chunga (@JP_Chunga): Utah 35 – 6 NIU

Mitch Harper (@Mitch_Harper) Utah 37 – 17 NIU

 

In their first visit to Dekalb and first taste of hashtag Maction, Utah(-10.5) kicks off against the Huskies tomorrow at 5:30p.m. MT on ESPN700. 


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