SALT LAKE CITY — For much of the first half against Northern Illinois, Utah’s defense looked lost.
Much to the shock of the crowd in a sunbaked Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Northern Illinois marched down the field twice to score touchdowns and added a field goal on another drive.
The first Huskies touchdown drive lasted 12 plays as NIU took nearly seven minutes off the clock with the drive cumulating in a 9-yard flip into the end zone from quarterback Ross Bowers. NIU added its second touchdown in the second quarter on a 74-yard pass from Bowers to Spencer Tears, who flashed an upside-down U to the north end zone, to tie the game. Tears was wide open through the secondary, then Vonte Davis — in for Julian Blackmon, who was on the sideline after being shaken up — couldn’t make the tackle. Utah wasn’t getting enough pressure on Bowers as it needed to (the Utes were missing Leki Fotu) and were struggling in the secondary in the first half. NIU went into halftime with 233 yards of offense and 17 points.
In the second half, though, Utah’s defense came out with brand-new life — sparked by pressure from the defensive line and defensive end Bradlee Anae.
Anae dominated the latter half of the game, finishing the contest with a career-high three sacks, two of which came in the second half. Led by Anae, Utah’s defensive line was much improved. Anae wore down NIU’s left tackle Andrew Starr and broke through, big time, in the late third quarter and fourth quarter.
Anae’s first sack of the second half came with 4:06 in the third quarter as he got off the line fast against Starr, turned the corner quickly and blindsided Bowers to set up a third-and-18 for NIU. On third down, Anae got around Starr and forced a quick pass to force NIU to punt.
Anae’s second, and most impressive, sack of the second half came early in the fourth quarter on a second-and-9 play. On the prior play, Anae beat Starr again, leading to a hold from Starr, but Anae was offside. After the offsetting penalties, Anae was doubled by Starr and running back Marcus Jones, but split the two players and stripped Bowers, although the fumble was recovered by NIU. It set up a third-and-15 with NIU trailing by 18 points and just 11 minutes remaining in the game. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley dialed up the blitz, Anae got in the quarterback’s face again, and all the Huskies could muster was a quick pass for a two-yard gain — ending any hopes of a comeback.
“He’s a force. Bradlee Anae is a force off the edge. He’s got a great motor, he’s got a great get-off, he had a chop, rip sack there — it was outstanding. He’s one of the best pass rushers in the Pac-12, maybe the best, and one of top in the nation,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Whittingham mentioned Anae has refined his game, playing within the framework of the defense, and honing in on when to take good chances and making good decisions.
The Utes were also much improved on third downs in the second half. Utah held NIU to 0 of 6 third-down conversions after allowing two third-down conversions in the first half of play. After giving up 233 yards of offense in the first half, the Utes clamped down and allowed just 69 yards of offense and no points in the second half.
“We came out with a more pissed-off attitude. They came out, they scored on us on our first home game here at our own stadium and we were ticked off to come out and play harder as a defense,” Anae said.
Blackmon put a bow on Utah’s second-half defensive turnaround with a toe-tap interception on third down at NIU’s 29-yard line that led to a Huntley-to-Dixon touchdown connection to put Utah up 35-17.
All told, it was night and day for the Utes’ defense on Saturday.
“We just made more plays in the back end, had the one nice interception by Julian, just played tighter coverage, did a better job getting to the quarterback, more gap sound against the run,” Whittingham said.