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Utah starts slow but finishes strong in 35-17 win over Northern Illinois

Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) dives over the Northern Illinois Huskies defense and into the end zone for a touchdown during first half action at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.
Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) dives over the Northern Illinois Huskies defense and into the end zone for a touchdown during first half action at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Some trends have developed early in the Utah football season.

The 13th-ranked Utes start slow, finish strong and, most importantly, end up with more points on the scoreboard when time expires.

For the second week in a row, Utah used a variation of that formula — the one that worked in a season-opening victory at BYU — while earning a 35-17 win over Northern Illinois in Saturday’s early game.

After failing to score in the first quarter, falling behind to the Huskies by a touchdown and only having a four-point halftime lead, the Utes picked it up in the second quarter and second half to win their 12th-straight home-opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“It took us a little longer to gain control than I would have liked, but we eventually got control in the second half,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “First half was kind of back and forth. We didn’t play very well on defense in the first half. We gave up that 88-yard drive and a big ball in a cover-two scheme that was a touchdown. Just didn’t play our best football defensively in the first half, but offensively we did from start to finish.”

NIU took a 7-0 lead with a 9-yard touchdown run by Ross Bowers with 3:18 left in the first quarter to cap that long drive.

That possession showed the Utes that NIU, which played them tough in a 17-6 defeat last season, wasn’t going to be a pushover despite Utah’s lofty ranking, the unfavorable location and the high-elevation heat.

Utah scored two quick touchdowns and took a 14-7 lead after NIU went up, thanks to a 13-yard run by Demari Simpkins and a 16-yard scramble by Tyler Huntley.

But the Huskies, who beat Illinois State 24-10 in their opener, didn’t flinch. Receiver Spencer Tears hauled in a pass from Bowers and dashed 74 yards for a tying touchdown. Tears even playfully taunted the unimpressed Ute crowd by flashing the U. and then turning his hands upside down.

Zack Moss made his presence felt in a powerful way, bulling over a couple of NIU defenders en route to the end zone to help the Utes regain the lead at 21-14.

Even so, NIU had an answer, cutting into the Utes’ lead on a 46-yard field goal by John Richardson with 51 seconds left in the first half.

“Utah is a great football team. We knew that going in,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “We knew we had to make plays to give ourselves an opportunity to win the football game. Our goal was to get it into the fourth quarter and give ourselves a chance to win. It didn’t happen the way we wanted it to. We have much respect for them. Our players are resilient and played hard. They expected to win and came in here in a hostile environment and handled the environment.”

Utah increased its advantage to double figures, 28-17, a few minutes into the second half on Moss’s second touchdown of the game — a 5-yarder at the 12:16 mark of the third quarter.

Moss didn’t have the eye-popping stats against NIU that he did in his 187-yard game vs. BYU, but he still finished with 80 yards and the two TDs on only 18 carries.

Huntley had a more proficient game behind center, throwing for 214 yards and a touchdown on 14-of-19 passing. He also had 38 yards rushing and the TD via the ground.

“If you can pass the ball, the running lanes will be there,” Moss said. “The goal every week is for the run game to help the pass game and vice versa.”

Utah’s defense also stepped up in the second half, holding NIU scoreless with only 69 yards of total offense in the final two quarters. Francis Bernard finished with 12 tackles, Devin Lloyd brought down 10 NIU players with a sack and Bradlee Anae tallied three sacks in an inspired effort.

We were more pissed off,” Anae said of the second-half improvement. “They scored on their first drive in our stadium and we were ticked off. We wanted to play harder as a unit.”

One of the best defensive stands in the second half saw the Utes stop the Huskies just inches shy of the marker on a fourth-down attempt at the 47-yard line.

Utah finally put the game away in the fourth quarter when Huntley hooked up with Jaylen Dixon for a 14-yard touchdown connection and a 35-17 lead. That came after a turnover was nullified because of a targeting call on NIU.

That was Huntley’s first passing TD of the year.

Utah, now 2-0 for the seventh season in a row, completes its nonconference schedule next Saturday at home (2:15 p.m.) against Idaho State.