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Utah Opponent Preview: Northern Illinois Offense

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Northern Illinois at Buffalo Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 edition of Utah vs Northern Illinois was lacking offense from both sides of the field. The Utes struggled mightily to score in last season’s road matchup, but the Huskies were seemingly unable to buy points, netting just two field goals in the 17-6 Utah victory. This year, the defending MAC champions have a new, offensive-minded coach at the helm and a little more experience on the field, which should result in a very different game from last season.

Former head coach, Rod Carey left the Huskies at the end of the 2018 season after accepting the head coaching job at Temple, opening the door for former NIU running back, Thomas Hammock, to step in and return to his alma mater. His first hire as head coach was offensive coordinator, Eric Eidsness, who had been the OC for South Dakota State since 2011. In his final season with the Jackrabbits, Eidsness’s offense scored an average of 42.5 points and 480.5 yards per game, finishing the season ranked third in the final FCS polls, and had a duo of running backs who combined for 1,746 yards on 256 carries.

With the revamped coaching staff clearly run-focused, junior running back Tre Harbison (5’11”, 215 lbs) will have a significant role in Saturday’s matchup. Averaging 5.2 yards per carry last season with 188 attempts under his belt, Harbison is a proven commodity for the Huskies, who proved his ability once again with a 99-yard performance against Illinois State in week one.

Chucking the ball will be former Cal starting quarterback, Ross Bowers. The senior grad transfer was serviceable in his debut with the Huskies, completing 60.6% of his 33 attempted passes, amassing 299 yards through the air in the process, with two touchdowns and one interception along the way. Considering Bowers hasn’t seen much meaningful game time since 2017 (the former Golden Bear played through the first half of Cal’s opening game in 2018 with a thumb injury, but was benched at the start of the second half and never saw the field again, completing just eight of his 17 passes in the little time he was allotted), it’s easy to imagine his week two performance could be even better.

Downfield, Bowers has an arsenal of receivers with big play potential, including junior Tyrice Richie, who nabbed both of Bowers’ TD passes, including a 68 yard score that highlighted Richie’s escapablity and speed. In total, four receivers, including Richie caught at least three passes in last week’s win, with junior tight end, Mitchell Brinkman reeling in four grabs for 51 total yards.

Utah’s defense is been lauded as one of the most impressive all-around units in the nation this season, and this week two matchup looks to be just the right measuring stick to see how much they have improved after an impressive week one performance.