SALT LAKE CITY — One year ago — off the beaten path in rural DeKalb, Illinois, about an hour out of Chicago — the Utah Utes found themselves in a dogfight. The Northern Illinois Huskies gave them quite a battle.
Utah escaped with a 17-6 win that day, but didn’t manage to lock down the outcome until linebacker Chase Hansen returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown with just 2:36 left to play.
It wasn’t the best of afternoons for the visitors. Utah surrendered seven sacks, lost two fumbles, had a field-goal attempt blocked and muffed a punt return.
“Probably tougher than it should have been,” Hansen said at the time. “I feel like no win is ever easy. That one was just physical. They are a good team. They’ve got good players. It doesn’t matter what conference you play in or whatever it is. They’ve got some guys.”
The experience has remained in memory yet green.
As Saturday’s rematch at Rice-Eccles Stadium approaches, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged it serves as a reminder that the Utes have to be ready to play every week.
“I want to give them credit because I don’t want to say we just slopped around. They had a good plan against us,” Whittingham said. “They had good players, too, with Sutton Smith really jumping out. He was a tremendous player. It was just a testament that you have to be on your game or you are going to struggle, so we have to be on our game.”
Smith, a defensive end who led the nation one year in quarterback pressures, tackles for loss and sacks, is no longer with NIU. He entered the NFL draft after his junior season and was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the sixth round.
- Utah’s Julian Blackmon breaks up a pass during the Utes’ game against Northern Illinois Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Illinois. Jenna Miller, For the Deseret News
- Utah’s Bradlee Anae (6) and Cody Barton (30) tackle Northern Illinois’ Marcus Childers as Jaylon Johnson (1) closes in during the game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill. Jenna Miller, For the Deseret News
- Utah’s Chase Hansen, right, celebrates after scoring a touchdown on a pick-six to seal the Utes’ win over Northern Illinois during the game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill. Jenna Miller, For the Deseret News
- Utah’s Britain Covey will the ball during the Utes’ game against Northern Illinois Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill. Jenna Miller, For the Deseret News
- Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley scrambles during the Utes’ game against Northern Illinois Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill. Jenna Miller, For the Deseret News
The Huskies, who won eight games in 2018, including the Mid-American Conference championship game and the Boca Raton Bowl, have endured other major changes as well. Head coach Rod Carey left for Temple and former Baltimore Ravens running backs coach Thomas Hammock is now in charge at NIU, his alma mater. Hammock worked with Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig under Gary Andersen at Wisconsin in 2013.
The Huskies opened the Hammock era last week with a 24-10 victory at home against Illinois State. As such, there isn’t a lot of history to draw upon prior to Saturday’s game.
”It is tough to say with only one game,” Whittingham said. “But they have a good running back who rushed for around 100 yards. They have speed at wideout with a kid going for over 100 yards at wide receiver. They are very sound on defense, fundamentally and technique-wise. Punter has a very strong leg, averaged about 45 yards per kick and punted eight or nine times.”
Whittingham added that “the main thing” that has Utah’s attention “is that we escaped the game last year by the skin on our teeth.”
NIU quarterback Ross Bowers is a graduate transfer from Cal. In 2017, he led the Golden Bears with 3,039 yards passing. In his debut with the Huskies, Bowers threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior running back Tre Harbison netted 99 yards on 23 carries last week, while junior wide receiver Tyrice Richie had two touchdown catches.
The defense includes sophomore cornerback Jalen McKie, who had a pick-six against Illinois State. Junior punter Matt Ference averaged 44.5 yards per kick.
“I was so happy with the way our team played and how they responded and a big step for us moving forward in our development,” Hammock said at his weekly press conference.