No. 13 Utah flexes defense as NIU visits

Field Level Media

September 03, 2019 at 10:13 pm.

Utah hasn’t missed a beat on defense.

The No. 13 Utes left no question where they stand on that side of the ball heading into their home opener against Northern Illinois on Saturday in Salt Lake City. Utah made an emphatic statement with the formula they used to beat BYU 30-12.

Turnovers helped the Utes break open a close game in the second half. Utah forced three turnovers overall and scored a pair of defensive touchdowns off those BYU miscues. The Utes held the Cougars to 300 total yards, with a scant 104 yards coming after halftime.

“We eliminated chaos and then we started to pick it up,” Utah receiver Britain Covey said.

On offense, the Utes did just enough to keep BYU from climbing back into the game.

Utah held the ball for 23 minutes in the second half — and mounted three drives totaling at least 66 yards — thanks to potent running from Zack Moss. The senior tallied 187 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.

Moss suffered a hand injury in fall camp and sported a splint after the game, but the hand did not interfere with his ability to move the chains. He forced 14 missed tackles and generated 121 yards after contact. Moss became the first Utah player to have a 100-yard rushing game against the Cougars since John White in 2011.

Moss enters the week needing to gain 158 yards to move into second place for career rushing yards at Utah.

“He has a chance to do some things that no backs have done here before, so he is off to a good start,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

Northern Illinois enters its first road contest of the season after pulling away for a 24-10 victory over Illinois State in its home opener behind a strong outing from senior quarterback Ross Bowers.

Bowers, a graduate transfer from California, completed 20 of 33 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Tyrice Richie, a transfer from Dodge City Community College, totaled 102 yards and two TDs on only three catches.

“They’ve created a great chemistry in a short amount of time,” Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock said.

The Bowers-to-Richie connection took off after halftime, following a sluggish start on offense. Richie’s second touchdown on a 68-yard strike early in the fourth quarter put the Huskies ahead for good.

Northern Illinois also got a critical fourth-quarter lift from its defense when Jalen McKie iced the game with a 32-yard interception return to give the Huskies’ their final touchdown.

“I just really liked the fight of our team,” Hammond said. “Going into the week, we expected it to be a four-quarter game. That’s exactly what we got. Our players did not flinch.”

Defense ruled the day when Utah and Northern Illinois clashed a year ago in DeKalb, Ill. The Utes edged the Huskies 17-6 after scoring 10 points over the final 4:38. Chase Hansen sealed the victory when he returned an interception 40 yards to prevent Northern Illinois from driving for a potential go-ahead touchdown.

Moss generated a season-low 66 yards on 16 carries that day. Utah held the Huskies to 228 total yards and a pair of field goals.

Containing Moss a second time will be a chore for Northern Illinois. He has the complete package for a running back, according to Whittingham — a strong body, good balance, a low center of gravity and excellent field vision.

“He is put together as well as any back we’ve ever had come through here,” Whittingham said.