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NIU's 1st-half offensive explosiveness doesn't carry over in loss at Utah

Northern Illinois quarterback Ross Bowers scores against Utah in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2019, Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Northern Illinois quarterback Ross Bowers scores against Utah in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2019, Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY – For one half, Northern Illinois seemed poised to be a thorn in Utah’s side yet again. The Huskies gave the Utes all they could handle for most of the game a year ago.
History did not repeat itself.

NIU could not generate enough offense to keep up with the No. 13 Utes after halftime. Utah handed the Huskies a 35-17 loss Saturday after limiting them to only 69 yards in the final two quarters.

Bradlee Anae paced Utah’s defense with three sacks. The Utes (2-0) had four sacks and six tackles for loss overall.

“Our goal was to get it into the fourth quarter and give ourselves a chance to win,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “It didn’t happen the way we wanted it to.”

Northern Illinois (1-1) went 0 for 6 on third downs after halftime. The Huskies managed only three first downs over the final 30 minutes and averaged 3 yards a play in that stretch.
It marked the second straight week in which NIU struggled to sustain drives. The Huskies are 5 of 27 converting third downs through their first two games.

“We had some situations where it was longer than we wanted,” Hammock said. “That’s a great defense. Let’s not kid ourselves.”

Early in the game, NIU seemed as if it had found some answers on defense. The Huskies looked like a team that could stand toe to toe with the Utes after taking a 7-0 lead into the second quarter.

Ross Bowers capped an 88-yard, 12-play drive in the first quarter by somersaulting over a defender into the end zone on a 9-yard run. Bowers completed all five passes he threw on the drive. It set the tone for a strong first half from the senior.

Bowers threw for 202 yards and a touchdown before halftime while completing 15-of-21 passes. He credited his efficiency to getting good protection and his receivers doing what they needed to do to get open.

“I thought our receivers played really, really hard,” said Bowers, who finished 20-of-29 passing for 229 yards. “I thought they did a good job of pressing Utah’s secondary, which was very elite. It made my job a lot easier. I really just stuck to my rules and the game plan.”

Spencer Tears gained more than 100 yards as a receiver for NIU for a second straight game after going for 106 yards and a touchdown on four receptions. Tears scored his touchdown on a catch he took 74 yards after eluding a tackler to tie the game at 14.

Utah used a series of big plays to charge in front early in the second quarter. The Utes tied it at 7 on a drive that started with a 25-yard run by Zack Moss and ended in a 13-yard fly sweep by Demari Simpkins. They went ahead for the first time on a 16-yard QB run by Tyler Huntley. Huntley put Utah in scoring position a play earlier after hitting Derrick Vickers for a wide-open, 23-yard pass on fourth down.

The Utes went ahead for good on a 16-yard run by Moss late in the second quarter and extended their lead to 28-17 early in the third quarter after Moss finished off a six-play, 70-yard drive with a 5-yard run.

Huntley finished with 214 yards and a touchdown on 14-of-19 passing for Utah. Moss added 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 18 carries.

“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.

Utah slammed the door on any comeback hopes when Julian Blackmon intercepted Bowers early in the fourth quarter. The Utes scored their final touchdown on a 14-yard reception by Jaylen Dixon with 12:49 left.

“The pick killed us,” Bowers said. “It took all our hope away.”

NIU had a chance to seize momentum again when Mykelti Williams forced Bryan Thompson to fumble one play after Bowers’ interception. The Huskies recovered the ball, but the play was wiped off the board. Williams was called for targeting on the hit.

The Utes got the ball back, and Dixon scored the touchdown on the next play.

“They said his head was down, which it was,” Hammock said. “It was a bang-bang play. Not much we can do. We’ll try to watch the tape and learn from it. But I’m not questioning the call one bit.”

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