Interception return for TD helps Utah beat N. Illinois 17-6
DEKALB, Ill. (AP) — Utah’s offense remains a work in progress.
The Utes (2-0) were shut out in the first half on Saturday night before rallying in the final two quarters en route to a 17-6 nonconference victory over Northern Illinois (0-2).
“We’re a pretty average football team right now,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We didn’t get much going offensively tonight and it was disappointing. We usually dominate special teams but we were very average, had a field goal blocked and turned the ball over on a punt return.
“But thank goodness for the defense. The defense played exceptionally well.”
Zack Moss ran for a touchdown while Chase Hanson added another score on a late interception return as unranked Utah extended its nonconference winning streak to 21 with a 17-6 come-from-behind victory over Northern Illinois on Saturday night.
Tyler Huntley was 20-of-31 passing for 286 yards as the Utes (2-0) remained unbeaten in nonconference games since 2012 and improved to 28-1 since joining the Pac-12 Conference in 2011.
Wide receiver Britain Covey said the Utes need improvement in a hurry with No. 9 Washington looming next Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“We know we have a lot of stuff that we need to fix,” said Covey, who had eight catches for 129 yards. “We’ve got to get better, that’s for sure. Credit to the defense of NIU, they’ve got a really good team.”
But like the Utes, the Huskies also had costly missed chances.
“I thought we had opportunities early in the game and late in the game and we didn’t execute down the stretch which ended up costing us,” Carey said. “We were down in the red zone one time and came away with no points and (also) settled for two field goals.”
Gantz’ 49-yard field goal with 1:23 left in the first quarter gave Northern Illinois a 3-0 lead it maintained through halftime. Utah’s Matt Gay — an AP preseason All-American —had a first-quarter field goal blocked and a 43-yard second-quarter attempt go wide right.
Huskie defensive end Sutton Smith, who topped the nation with 14 sacks in 2017, hit Huntley for a four-yard loss with seconds left in the first half to help stop a late Utes drive.
But Huntley set up Utah’s go-ahead touchdown with a 41-yard third-quarter strike to Jaylen Dixon to the Northern Illinois 35. Seven plays later, Moss, a junior running back, scored from the 1 for his second touchdown of the season as the Utes claimed their first lead at 7-3.
The Huskies narrowed the margin to 7-6 on a 27-yard Gantz field goal with 6:51 left after a promising drive stalled at the Utes 9.
Gay’s 40-yard field goal opened a 10-6 lead with 4:38 showing. Hanson’s 22-yard interception return two minutes later capped the scoring.
Saturday’s game was the first between the teams. They’ll play again in 2019 at Utah.
Utah, which led the nation in fewest yards allowed (59) entering Saturday, gave up 74 by late in the first quarter, 128 by halftime. Northern Illinois collected 228 yards for the game. On defense, the Huskies recorded 14 tackles for a loss and had six sacks, including two by defending national sack leader Sutton Smith, who had 14 in 2017.
Unranked Utah, which received 71 votes in this week’s Associated Press poll, hope to crack the Top 25 with a win heading into next Saturday’s Pac-12 season opener against No. 9 Washington.
DEFENSE MAKES ITS CASE
Utah last held a team without a touchdown against Southern Utah in 2016 (a 24-0 win). On Saturday, the Utes defense held the Huskies to just 15 yards rushing in the second half (14 third quarter, 1 fourth quarter). The Huskies and Utes combined for just 582 yards of offense.
FACING THE PAC-12 CONFERENCE
Northern Illinois dropped to 0-2 against the conference, including a 1996 loss at Oregon State. Utah was the first Pac-12 team to visit Huskie Stadium. Utah faced a Mid-American Conference team for the first time.
Northern Illinois hosts Central Michigan on Saturday.
Utah hosts No. 9 Washington on Saturday.