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Opponent Preview: Northern Illinois’ Defense

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Northern Illinois may have given up 33 points in their season opener against Iowa, but a hard-fought first half suggests Utah needs to be ready for a physical battle when they enter the unfamiliar confines of Huskie Stadium this Saturday.

Despite a blow-out loss, Northern Illinois defense didn’t go down without a fight. Iowa was forced to punt five times, three of which came in the opening half. In fact, Iowa opened the game with back-to-back three-and-outs (netting a total of 7 combined yards) followed by an interception on their third possession that prematurely ended a 38-yard drive by the Hawkeyes and continued to keep Iowa contained until midway through the third quarter when the scoring onslaught began.

As expected, the star of the defense was defensive end Sutton Smith. The junior phenom recorded his first (and so far only) sack of the season against the Hawkeyes, which also led to a forced fumble. Smith will be a major threat against the Utes, showcasing elite speed off the right side and killer instinct comparable to an enraged Bobby Boucher. Keeping him contained will likely be problematic for Utah’s o-line, but a major key to success.

Outside of Smith, junior linebacker Kyle Pugh had a noteworthy performance in his first game back after suffering a ruptured bicep tendon that relegated the rising star to the sidelines for most of 2017. Pugh recorded a team-high nine tackles, far fewer than the 17 total tackles he racked up in last season’s opener against Boston College, but in line with his 2017 average of 8.75 total tackles per game.

The Utes will also need to be mindful of corners Jalen Embry and Albert Smalls. The backfield duo are proven pass disrupters with good hands and better speed. Smalls reeled in an early interception, his first since November 18, 2015, and considering Utah’s glaring turnover issue against Weber State just last week, this may make for an interesting match-up against Utah’s young group of receivers.

With an uptick in competition, and their first road contest of the season, the Utes have one last chance to tighten any remaining nuts and bolts on the offense because next week’s group of Huskies are bigger, faster, meaner and have a lot more to prove.