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Utes get defensive in dogfight with Northern Illinois, prevail 17-6

DEKALB, Ill. — Next Saturday's Pac-12 battle with the Washington Huskies was preluded by another dogfight for the Utah Utes. The Northern Illinois hounds gave them all they could handle Saturday night.

Utah prevailed 17-6, icing the outcome with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Chase Hansen with 2:36 left to play.

"Probably tougher than it should have been," Hansen said. "I feel like no win is ever is easy. That one was just physical. They are a good team. They've got good players. It doesn't matter what conference you play in or whatever it is. They've got some guys."

Hansen, who finished with 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery to go along with his pick-six, added that the Utes can now look ahead to the next group of Huskies.

"We're excited to get into Pac-12 play, and now it just matters even more," he said.

The Utes, though, acknowledged that they have plenty to work on. They gave up six sacks, lost two fumbles, had a field goal blocked and muffed a punt return in their hard-fought victory over the Huskies from the Mid-American Conference.

"I give it to them. They had a good little D-line. They just made plays at the right time," said Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley, who completed 20 of 31 passes for 286 yards amidst the pressure.

Utah finished with 354 yards of total offense. Wide receiver Britain Covey topped the Utes with eight receptions for 129 yards. Running back Zack Moss wound up with 66 yards rushing and a touchdown.

"We know we've got to get better to be able to compete with teams like Washington next week," Covey said. "So we've got to get better."

After praising NIU as a tough, hard-nosed team that is well coached, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham wasn't very complimentary of the Utes.

"We're a pretty average football team right now at best," he said. "Not getting much going offensively tonight. It was disappointing."

Special teams were another area, he explained, that were very average.

"But thank goodness for the defense," Whittingham said. (The) defense played exceptionally well."

Linebacker Cody Barton led all tacklers with 13 stops. Cornerback Julian Blackmon had three pass breakups and safety Corrion Ballard forced two fumbles.

Whittingham referred to Hansen's interception as "the check-mate play" of the game.

"That pick-6 was huge," Whittingham said. "And the defense just kept battling all night with, to be honest, not a lot of help from the other side of the ball."

Trailing 3-0, Utah pulled ahead with 8:31 to go in the third quarter. A one-yard run by Moss capped a nine-play drive that took 4:12 off the clock. The Utes moved into scoring position after three pivotal passes from Huntley. A 41-yard completion to Jaylen Dixon put them on the NIU 30. Third-down connections to Connor Haller (8 yards) and Britain Covey (14 yards) kept the chains moving.

The Huskies responded with a 27-yard field goal by Andrew Gantz with 6:51 remaining. Gay followed with a 40-yarder for Utah just over two minutes later — giving Utah a 10-6 edge before Hansen's TD.

NIU took the game's initial lead on a 49-yard field goal by Gantz with 1:23 to play in the first quarter. The kick capped a nine-play drive for the Huskies, who had 74 yards of total offense at the time — surpassing the 59 surrendered by the Utes in all of last week's 41-10 win over Weber State.

The Huskies, who blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt by the Utes prior to the first score, turned to their defense again early in the second quarter. That's when Huntley was stopped for a loss on a fourth-and-1, giving NIU the ball on its own 40. The Huskies wound up marching down to the Utah 8 before the Utes benefitted from a reversal of fortune when a bad snap foiled a 23-yard field goal setup.

Utah later had a scoring opportunity of its own. However, a 43-yard field goal attempt by Matt Gay was wide left with 1:24 remaining in the opening half.

As a result, the Utes were held scoreless over the first two quarters for the first time since last October's 30-10 loss to Arizona State — doing so despite having more yards of total offense (180-128) and first downs (11-8) than the Huskies. Huntley, though, was sacked three times in the half. Defensive tackle Jack Heflin was credited with the blocked kick, NIU's third over the past two seasons.