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NIU offensive line looks to pick up slack against Utah

NIU averaged only 3 yards a play last year against Utah; fewer than 6 yards a play against ISU

NIU quarterback Ross Bowers hands off to Tre Harbison in the first half Saturday night against Illinois State.
NIU quarterback Ross Bowers hands off to Tre Harbison in the first half Saturday night against Illinois State.

DeKALB — A year removed from averaging just three yards per play in a 17-6 home loss to Utah, the Huskies are looking to step up their attack when they visit Salt Lake City Saturday.

The Huskies collected just 228 yards of offense on 76 plays.

Huskies center CJ Perez said he knows if the offensive line picks up the slack compared to last year's game with the Utes, the Huskies will be in a good position to compete.

“Watching last year’s game, I honestly think we were in that game from start to finish," Perez said of the 17-6 home defeat. "It was tough. I think the defense played a heck of a game last year against them. Our offense really struggled, but looking at them, if the defense can do even half of what they did last year against them and the offense can step up like we needed them (to) last year I think we’ll be in the ballgame.”

The No. 13 ranked Utah Utes welcome NIU for a noon kickoff on the tails of a 30-12 victory at BYU last week. The Huskies enter coming off a 24-10 home win over Illinois State, during which the Huskies put up 299 yards through the air and 5.6 yards per play.

Utah brings back all-PAC 12 defenders at free safety (Julian Blackmon), cornerback (Jaylon Johnson), nickle back (Javelin Guidry) and defensive tackle (John Penisini and Leki Futu, both first-teamers). Linebacker Francis Bernard won PAC 12 defensive player of the week honors.

“Their defense, I’m sure they’ve got one of the best defenses in the country based on what I’ve seen," NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. "So that’s a big challenge. Our offensive line is going to be challenged. They need to play better than they did last week. So we’ve got to be physical to start the day off, expecting a very physical contest.”

To have success offensively, the Huskies must move a heavy set of bodies on the Utah defensive line, a unit that is commonly acknowledged by football pundits and Hammock himself of being among the best in the FBS.

“Those guys specifically, they’re aggressive. I relate them honestly to our guys," Perez said. "Which is a good thing, I think our d-line is some of the best in the country. They’re aggressive, they’re strong, they're fast and those guys actually push you the most.”

The Huskies are coming off a game in which Perez and right guard Brayden Patton were banged up. NIU struggled to slow the Illinois State pass rush, yielding three sacks and a great deal of pressure, a development that caused the Huskie coaching staff to make some moves on the offensive line, including playing Andrew Starr at left tackle for the majority of the second half.

“He gave us great stability. I think (Marques) Cox went out there the first time playing in college football. Andrew Starr’s got 30-something starts under his belt," Hammock said. "So just to have that experience, it was a calming effect, and obviously something that we need to look more into moving forward.”

In the 2018 clash, NIU had possession of the ball in the fourth quarter last fall at Huskie Stadium trailing 10-6 against the Utes before Marcus Childers had a pass intercepted by Utes linebacker Chase Hansen returned for a touchdown.

Utah coach Kyle Willingham had strong words for NIU's defensive performance a season ago, saying the Utes were lucky to escape DeKalb with a win.

Willingham remarked "thank goodness" concerning Sutton Smith's departure.

“They had a good plan against us and they had good players. Sutton Smith is the one that really jumps out. He was a tremendous player," Willingham said. It was just a testament that you’ve got to be on your game or you’re going to struggle.”

Utes running back Zack Moss is coming off his third best rushing performance in terms of yardage of his career, when he went for 187 yards on 29 carries against BYU.

“He’s strong as a bull. The kid is built incredibly powerfully," Willingham said. "He’s 5-10, 220 pounds and very good weight room strength. He’s put together as well as any back we’ve ever had come through here. He’s got great balance. He’s hard to knock off his feet, He’s a guy that has a low center of gravity and stays on his feet. He’s got great vision.”

A season ago, NIU held Moss to 66 rushing yards, on 16 carries, his lowest rushing total of the 2018 season.

“That’s the emphasis every week is for us to stop the run first," junior defensive end Matt Lorbeck said. "You stop the run, you put yourself in a good position to win football games. I think we stopped the run against them last year and we put ourselves in a good place. We just didn’t finish last year. We’ve got to finish the game this year.”

Series history: Utah defeated NIU at Huskie Stadium 17-6 last year in the only meeting between the schools.

Fast fact: Saturday's game represents the first time the Huskies have played at a Pac-12 opponent since a 1996 game at Oregon state.

Prediction: Utah 27, NIU 13

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