The Northern Illinoi Huskiestake on their second straight Power 5 opponent when theUtah Utes come to DeKalb Saturday night. The Huskies created plenty of buzz this offseason when the MAC team unveiled a non-conference slate of all Power 5 teams.
It started last week with a not-so-fun trip to Iowa (Big Ten) where the Huskies lost by 26 points, with road trips to Florida State (ACC) and BYU (Independent but considered a “power” team) still to come. This week, NIU plays its first home game of 2018 as the Utes from the Pac-12 come to Huskie Stadium. This will be only the second time that Northern Illinois has played a Pac-12 team, the other coming in back in 1996 when the Huskies made the long trek to Corvallis and lost to Oregon State by 39 points.
Utah is making history of its own, as this will be the Utes' first-ever meeting with a MAC school despite the fact that they were a “mid-major” team from 1962-2010. Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes have a 7-1 record against Group of 5 teams. Northern Illinois has gone 11-32 against Power 5 competition since 1996.
Both teams have something to prove heading into Saturday night’s matchup. The Huskies are eager to show that they are much better than their 33-7 loss at Iowa in which they were dominated on both sides of the ball; while Utah looks to showcase that its 41-10 thrashing of FCS opponent Weber State is a sign of things to come.
Utah at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Huskies' defense vs. Utes' offense
Iowa’s offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks manhandled the Northern Illinois defense last Saturday. The defensive line failed to get penetration most of the day (one sack), the linebackers were flushed out on blocks, and that left the defensive backs on islands all game long. The Hawkeyes wore down the Huskies physically and that allowed them to explode for 30 points in the second half. Iowa’s running backs had room to run while quarterback Nate Stanley had all day to throw the ball, most of which were short quick passes that turned into big gains.
This week however NIU won’t be facing a pro-style offense. Utah presents a version of a spread offense that doesn’t use a fullback, uses pass-catching tight ends as opposed to blocking ones, and an offensive line that lines up in wider gaps and mostly two-point stances. This is actually more suited for the Huskies' defensive strength with a D-line, led by end Sutton Smith, that can hit gaps quickly and a back seven, anchored by linebacker Kyle Pugh, which is generally solid in pass coverage against spread teams. The Utes will try to keep the NIU defense on its toes by utilizing short passes and mixing in some option looks.
2. Huskies' offense vs. Utes' defense
NIU was able to grind out 200 yards of offense against Iowa, but averaged just four yards per pass completion, fewer than three yards per carry and didn't score until the fourth quarter. This wasn’t because of any complex blitz packages or any tricked-out schemes thrown at them by the Hawkeyes but rather because the Huskies physically dominated the Huskies' offensive line which gave the linebackers plenty of room to roam free and make plays. Utah’s defense, particularly the defensive line, doesn't appear to be as physical as Iowa's at first glance.
The Utes focus mostly on limiting big plays in the passing game based on the types of offenses they face, especially in Pac-12 play. While Northern Illinois runs a form of a spread offense, the Huskies' strength is running the ball. If the offensive line can do its part, the different ball carriers NIU can call on, including quarterback Marcus Childers, may be able to control the clock and wear down Utah's defense. The Utes may have to mix up their schemes, such as putting six in the box, to keep the Huskies from dictating things when they have the ball.
3. The Huskies’ home-field advantage
Northern Illinois enjoys home cooking in DeKalb. Since 2002, NIU has gone 12-4 in openers at Huskie Stadium and have outscored opponents 533-327 in that span. That includes eight straight victories from 2008-15, nine games in which the Huskies scored 30 points or more, and a 2-2 record against Power 5 teams. While this may not be the Los Angeles Coliseum or Autzen Stadium, Utah should still consider this 24,000-seat Midwestern venue as hostile territory.
After a week of refocusing and adjustments in practice, and considering the small but energetic home-field advantage behind them, the Huskies use Utah’s style of play to their advantage. They’ll get their ground game going, Marcus Childers puts a solid performance together, and Northern Illinois gets its first win of 2018 with an upset of the Utes.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 34, Utah 30
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of NIU Athletics)