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Utah Opponent Preview: Northern Illinois Defense

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NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-UAB vs Northern Illinois Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It will have been 364 days since the Utes last defeated the Huskies of Northern Illinois come Saturday morning. Last year’s trip to DeKalb, Illinois was mired with offensive miscues thanks to a gritty Huskies defense that shut the Utes out, 0-3 in the first half. Utah wouldn’t score until nearly five minutes into the third quarter thanks to a Zack Moss one-yard touchdown. A 40-yard field goal mid-way through the fourth quarter would be the last offensive points Utah would score that afternoon, as Utah’s Chase Hansen sealed the game with a 40 yard interception returned for a touchdown, putting the Utes up 17-6. The good news? The biggest pain Utah’s offense dealt with last season, defensive end Sutton Smith is finally off to the NFL. The bad news? The Huskies still field a respectable defense that features seven returning starters from last year’s team.

Of the seven returning starters, three of which will be found in the linebacking corps, with seniors Antonio Jones-Davis, Kyle Pugh and rover Lance Deveaux. Jones-Davis in particular is an impressive specimen at 5’11”, 220 lbs, who earned fist team all-MAC honors in 2018 after recording 130 total tackles (five of which came against the Utes) and four sacks. Pugh (6’0”, 225 lbs) was equally disruptive against Utah’s offense, recording four solo tackles, with two assisted tackles to boot.

One of NIU’s best defensive assets is senior safety, Mykelti Williams. The two-year starter was awarded second team all-MAC honors last season with 75 total tackles and was tied with a team-high two interceptions in 2018. Joining Williams in the backfield will be sophomore corner, Jalen McKie, who also recorded two INTs last season, despite starting only two games all season, with the majority of his playing time coming off the bench.

Up front, the offensive line will be tasked with stopping the trio of junior defensive tackle Jack Heflin, junior nose guard Weston Kramer and his backup, senior Ben LeRoy, who will likely rotate in frequently if last week’s matchup against FCS foe, Illinois State. is any indication. Together Heflin, Kramer and LeRoy combined for 105 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss and nine sacks in 2018.

Utah’s offense was a little inconsistent at times during last week’s win over BYU, however it’s hard to imagine the offensive unit regressing in the seven days, especially enough to make this iteration of the Huskies defense a legitimate problem. Considering the Utes are back inside the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Sutton Smith-less Huskies have the experience needed to remain competitive, but lack any definable x-factor that make them a serious threat.