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Lessons in Staying Undefeated: What We Learned from Utah vs. Northern Illinois

Utah came away with an expected win against NIU, but we didn’t expect Tyler Huntley to be the offensive star of the game. Utah now has one game until Pac-12 play, what do they need to fix before then?

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As college football teams everywhere imploded on Saturday, (Looking at you Texas, Washington, Texas A&M, Stanford, Miami, Tennessee, Nebraska, etc.) Utah kept rolling with a comfortable win over Northern Illinois. The Utes won 35-17 in a game where they outscored the Huskies 14-0 after halftime. With Washington falling apart against Cal, Utah is now the clear frontrunner in the Pac-12 and sits as the highest ranked Pac-12 team in the AP Poll at No. 11. In all likelihood, Utah will be in the Top 10 after next week.

The game against Northern Illinois wasn’t a game that was circled on the calendar by any means, but it gave us a greater understanding of what Utah will be this year and provided another crucial warmup game before the start of Pac-12 play. Here are the most important lessons from the Utes’ win against the Huskies:

Tyler Huntley Can Throw the Football

Most of the angst surrounding the Utes after the BYU football game seemed to be directed at the play of the quarterback. Huntley’s stat line was by no means pretty against the Cougars. He threw for only 106 yards on 16 attempts while electing to scramble with the ball eight times. Besides being mad at Huntley for speaking true words about BYU in his press conference, most of the discussion around Huntley was whether he was good enough as a quarterback to help Utah reach expectations.

This week showed that questioning Huntley was just a Week 1 overreaction. Huntley played one of the best games of his career against Northern Illinois. Against the Huskies, he threw the ball 19 times, completing 14 of those passes for 214 yards. He had one passing touchdown and a great rushing touchdown as well. His finished with 252 total yards from scrimmage, two touchdowns, and zero turnovers.

While those yardage numbers might not jump out to someone who didn’t watch the game, the tape reveals that Huntley was the key to the offense’s success the entire game. Zack Moss only ran for 80 yards on 4.4 yards per carry for the Utes. Northern Illinois sold out to stop Moss and challenged Huntley to beat them, which Huntley did perfectly. He made excellent reads, threw the ball deep successfully, and never came close to turning it over. According to ESPN’s Total QBR stat, Tyler Huntley was the best quarterback in the nation this week.

Huntley doesn’t get the respect he deserves as a quarterback because he has never been the focal point of the offense. That role has and always will belong to Moss. When the running game is working, Kyle Whittingham and Andy Ludwig are going to rely on that as much as possible. But we needn’t worry when Huntley is called upon to throw the ball, because the senior knows what he’s doing.

Yes, bigger opponents with better defenses lie ahead for the Utes. The USC game looms particularly large in less than two weeks. But, it’s easy to forget that just two games before his season ending injury last year, Huntley passed for 341 yards and had five total touchdowns against the Trojans. The Utah offense is in good hands, it doesn’t matter if Huntley or Moss is leading the way.

Bigger Concern: The Secondary or the Offensive Line?

There were two obvious concerns for the Utes that presented themselves against the Huskies. The first was the inability of Utah to run the ball effectively. A running back that was inferior to Zack Moss would have finished the game with less 60 yards and less than 3 yards per carry. The offensive line had a lot of struggles in creating holes for Moss, and he was getting pounded immediately after getting handed the ball. Look at these stats:

Disclaimer: the tweet says Moss had 78 yards on 19 attempts, but the official Utah website lists him at 80 yards on 18 carries, so we’re going to use those numbers instead.

What this information is telling us is that 60 of Moss’ 80 rushing yards for the game came after contact. Some basic math will tell us that if only 20 yards came before contact, Moss was only going 1.1 yard before getting hit on each carry. Moss had to create 75 percent of yards after a defender had tried to tackle him. Trying to successfully run the ball in that type of situation would have been a fool’s errand. Moss turned those touches into some truly spectacular plays.

But the running game also struggled quite a bit at times too. Half of Moss’ carries on the day only resulted in two yards or less. On the flip side, Moss was able to gain eight yards or more on only three carries. After crushing BYU’s soul last week, it was jarring to see Moss struggle just to get beyond the line of scrimmage.

Some of the struggles can be attributed to two starting offensive lineman, Orlando Umana and Johnny Maea, not being able to play due to injury. Also, Northern Illinois repeatedly stacked the box with defenders and sold out to stop the run. The Huskies did not want Moss to beat them. Outside of his one unstoppable touchdown run, Moss was only a minor factor in the game.

The other concern that needs to be talked about is the play of the secondary. In the first half, the defense allowed Northern Illinois to complete seven pass plays that gained ten yards or more. The worst play of the game was the 74-yard touchdown pass from Ross Bowers to Spencer Tears to tie the game at 14. Tears made it to the endzone because backup safety Vonte Davis, the only player who had a chance to tackle Tears, took too sharp of angle in pursuit and couldn’t bring Tears down. However, even if Davis makes that Tackle, that is still at least a 35-yard gain for the Huskies.

Utah’s defense struggled particularly over the middle of the field. The Huskies were able to pick up big chunks of yardage several times. One notable play was a third-and ten where Bowers completed a deep pass right down the middle of the field to his tight end Daniel Crawford that picked up 35 yards. That drive ultimately ended in a NIU field goal.

The defense did lockdown the Huskies in the second half, limiting them to only 69 yards and zero points. Even after the second half performance by the defense, the struggles of the secondary worry me far more than the offensive line. If Umana and Maea return soon to the lineup, Moss should have a lot more running room. Plus, with Huntley establishing that he can throw the ball, defenses won’t be able to sell out to stop Moss the same way the Huskies did if they want to win the game.

Outside of Washington and Cal, the biggest problem Utah will face in the Pac-12 is slowing down high-powered offenses. Oregon just put up 77 on Nevada, USC looks to have improved offensively with Kedon Slovis at quarterback, and Washington State is going to put up tons of yards as long as Mike Leach remains the head coach. Teams such as Arizona or Arizona State will always pose a threat if they can get Utah into a shootout. If the secondary continues to give up big plays and allows offenses to throw for a bunch of yards, Utah could get into trouble.

If there’s one thing Whittingham and the coaching staff try to avoid as much as possible, it’s getting into a shootout. They better hope the struggles from the secondary were just a fluke. If not, they could be in for some long and stressful #Pac12AfterDark nights.

This Game Was Utah’s Opposite Day

In reality, watching this Utah game was like watching the Bizzaro Utes. The offense could barely run the ball and was getting destroyed on short yardage plays. The defense kept allowing massive passing plays and failed to stop the Huskies on long third downs. Meanwhile, the passing offense was carrying the Utes no problem. They could throw the ball at will, receivers were always open down the field, and you felt confident when the quarterback dropped back to pass the ball.

I can’t remember the last time that you could describe a successful Utah football game like that. But, as everyone in the student section kept saying, it’s nice living in a world where you’re confident in your quarterback and receivers. It’s nice not feeling like every third down and longer than five yards is just a mandatory event before a punt.

However, this Bizzaro Utah team proved that college football fans will never be satisfied until your team achieves 104 percent perfection, because when we weren’t reveling in the passing game, we were complaining about the defense and run game. Contentment and being a college football fan are not two things that can coexist.

The Second Half of Games Will Be Fun, but the First Half Won’t Be

I think we all just need to accept what watching/attending a Utah football game is going to be like this season: the first half will put you through a lot of stress and agony, while the second half will be a delight.

This has been the case in each of the first two games. Utah entered halftime against BYU with a three-point lead and held only a four-point lead against NIU at the half. Neither of those games should have been that close if not for some dramatic miscues by Utah and some poor play from one side of the ball (offense for BYU and defense for NIU).

Thankfully, Utah came out with some fire adjustments in the second half and cruised to an 18-point victory in each game. Regardless, Utah needs to break this trend before it becomes a habit. As any BYU fan will begrudgingly admit, there are four quarters in a football game, and they all count to your final score. Utah can’t afford to start slow against teams with equal levels of talent and expect to win every game.

This upcoming Idaho State game is a good chance for Utah to come out firing and get ahead early. It’s the last game Utah has to get things in order before playing USC. The university is paying Idaho State $550,000 to come and get beat down, so the Utes might as well get their money’s worth.

Stray Observations

· I’ve been trying to preach patience with the Pac-12 and to not freak out about one game, but that Washington loss to Cal is not a great look for the conference. Now, the two teams that were supposed to give the Pac-12 the best shot at the playoff (according to Vegas odds, please don’t hurt me), already have one loss each. I’m sure the Pac-12 offices are already making the requisite sacrifice to the football gods to ensure one of those teams makes it to the Pac-12 title game with only one loss. Then again, Larry Scott doesn’t accept any responsibility for the outcome of football games, so maybe there won’t be any sacrifices to the football gods. Unless we count failing to earn revenue from the Pac-12 Network as a sacrifice.

· If there’s one thing I find fascinating/annoying, it’s the person who insists on still talking trash while losing or after they just took a massive L. That lack of awareness probably takes years to develop, maybe even a decade. With that said, I present to you the NIU student section twitter page trying to take a shot at the MUSS. Clearly, they had never heard the words of the poet, “Sit down. Be humble.” The MUSS taught them that lesson real quick:

· Being a part of the MUSS is a treasure I will never take for granted. At one point during the game, NIU ran a play on third-down that put them right at the first-down marker. The refs gave the Huskies what appeared to be a questionable spot, and the student section did not like that. The MUSS immediately started a chant that included “bull” and another word while the refs were measuring the spot. The Huskies still ended up being short of the first-down and were forced to punt. The students kept chanting anyway. College football is the best sport.