Will tough defense rule the day in the rematch between Northern Illinois and Utah on Saturday? It certainly played out that way when these two teams clashed a year ago. Both teams already seem to be playing up to the same defensive standard this season.
The No. 13 Utes (1-0) blasted BYU 30-12 after forcing three turnovers — two of which Francis Bernard and Jaylon Johnson turned into defensive touchdowns. Utah allowed the Cougars to gain 104 yards on 18 plays after halftime. Offensively, the Utes held the ball for 23 minutes in the second half. Zack Moss helped Utah control time of possession by rushing for 187 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.
The Huskies (1-0) pulled away after halftime to notch a 24-10 victory over FCS opponent Illinois State. Northern Illinois gave up just 51 rushing yards to the Redbirds and clinched the win with a late defensive score by Jared McKie. Ross Bowers threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-33 passing in his debut as the Huskies' starting quarterback.
Utah edged Northern Illinois 17-6 a year ago after Chase Hansen's late pick-six stopped a potential go-ahead drive by the Huskies in the final minutes.
Northern Illinois at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 1 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Utah -21.5
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
Sustaining drives ended up being a persistent struggle for the Huskies last season. If Northern Illinois hopes to change that, Ross Bowers will need to find a rhythm early.
The California transfer quarterback couldn't get the Huskies' offense going until the third quarter in their season opener. Ultimately, Bowers helped Northern Illinois get a pair of touchdowns on the board by hitting his tight ends on short and intermediate routes. Daniel Crawford and Mitchell Brinkman both had career-best outings. Crawford hauled in three catches for 75 yards and Brinkman added four catches for 51 yards.
Utah's imposing defensive line means that the Huskies aren't likely to get much production in the run game. The Utes led the Pac-12 in rushing defense last season and limited BYU to just 92 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per carry. Bowers will need to be able to hit targets like Crawford, Brinkman, and Tyrice Richie on a consistent basis to counteract the stout run defense.
When Utah Has the Ball
Feeding Zack Moss the ball will be a priority for Utah on offense. You can't argue with the results it gets. The senior has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in his last four contests dating back to last season.
Still, Utah can't simply expect Moss to carry the offense alone all season. He accounted for 11 of the team's 21 first downs against BYU. That may not work as well against a Northern Illinois team that limited him to 66 yards on 16 carries a year ago.
The Utes want to strike a better balance between the run and the pass this week. Tyler Huntley was solid and efficient throwing the ball against the Cougars, totaling 106 yards while completing 13-of-16 passes. Utah will need Huntley to make plays downfield to prevent the Huskies from loading up the box and stifling Moss.
It can be done. Northern Illinois is inexperienced at cornerback. Receivers like Jaylen Dixon, Solomon Enis, and Bryan Thompson are capable deep threats. Dixon, in particular, averaged a team-best 18.4 yards per catch in 2018. Demari Simpkins and Britain Covey can make plays in space and turn short passes into big gains. If any of these receivers get into an early rhythm, it could be a long day for the Huskies' secondary.
Northern Illinois last beat a ranked non-conference opponent in 2003. Utah is not an ideal candidate as a drought-buster. The Utes had one of the Pac-12's best all-around defenses last season and haven't lost a step in 2019. The Huskies will have to hope it is a low-scoring affair like a year ago to have a chance at pulling an upset. It isn't happening with Moss running at peak form and Huntley showing his usual efficiency in the passing game.
Prediction: Utah 31, Northern Illinois 10
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.