Second half struggles plague Huskies in loss to Utah

The Huskies traveled to Salt Lake City to face the University of Utah in the first of three consecutive road matches.

DeKALB — The NIU football team challenged the Utah Utes in the first half but failed to score in the second half, falling 35-17 to the 13th ranked team in the country Saturday.

The Huskies were still in the game at halftime, down 21-17. NIU’s offense picked up only three first downs in the second half and failed to move the ball past the Utah 48-yard line.

Head Football Coach Thomas Hammock said he expected NIU to compete with Utah for all four quarters and is disappointed in letting the game slip away late.

Second half struggles plague Huskies in loss to Utah

Head Coach Thomas Hammock calls a play during the University of Utah game at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with the loss,” Hammock said according to an NIU Athletics news release. “We wanted to make it a four-quarter game, and we were right there in the first half. We have to take advantage of our opportunities. In the second half we struggled and got out of rhythm.”

The Utes ground attack garnered them 193 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. Senior running back Zack Moss finished with 80 yards and two touchdowns.

NIU senior quarterback Ross Bowers finished with 229 yards passing but was sacked four times. Hammock said protecting the quarterback will become more of a priority, as the transfer from California has been sacked 10 times in two games. 

“I thought Ross [Bowers] played well,” Hammock said according to an NIU Athletics press release. “We’re getting him hit way too much, and we’ve got to clean up the pass protection.”

Senior wide receiver Spencer Tears finished with five receptions, a game-high 112 receiving yards and a touchdown. Tear only had one reception last week against Illinois State. 

After a pair of punts to start the game, Bowers went a perfect 5-for-5 for 52 yards to put NIU deep in Utah territory. Bowers finished the drive himself by flipping over defenders at the goal line for a nine-yard touchdown run, recreating one of his most memorable plays from California.

Moss gained 25 yards on the ground for Utah before the end of the first quarter. Soon, senior wide receiver Demari Simpkins scored on a 13-yard rush, and Utah tied the game 7-7.

The Utes’ next drive got a kickstarter with two completed throws by senior quarterback Tyler Huntley, including a 23-yard completion on fourth down.

After setting up the long drive with his arm, Huntley put Utah ahead with his feet on a 16-yard touchdown run with 8:20 left in the second quarter.

NIU responded exactly one minute later, with Bowers finding Tears open at midfield for a completion. Tears avoided a shoelace tackle and raced off for a 74-yard touchdown catch to tie the game at 14-14.

Utah put together another long, grueling drive of nine plays for 75 yards to wear the NIU defense down, with senior linebacker Kyle Pugh and junior defensive tackle Ben LeRoy being subbed out on the drive to treat injuries. 

Moss finished the drive with a 16-yard run through NIU defenders to give the Utes a 21-14 lead with 2:48 left in the half.

Redshirt senior tight end Daniel Crawford helped the Huskies set up a scoring opportunity with a 37-yard completion. Redshirt first-year kicker John Richardson kicked a career-long 46-yard field goal to make it 21-17 at halftime.

Utah took the chance to create separation on the scoreboard starting the second half with possession. Following a Huntley completion to sophomore wide receiver Bryan Thompson, Moss scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown to put the Utes ahead 28-17.

Hammock and his staff took a chance on their first possession of the half and opted to go for it on fourth down with only a yard to gain. 

Junior running back Tre Harbison was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, resulting in a turnover on downs. The Utah lead remained 28-17 at the end of the third.

Early in the fourth quarter, Bowers had a pass intercepted by senior defensive back Julian Blackmon, a two-time All Pac-12 player, at NIU’s own 29.

After an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on senior safety Mykelti Williams, Huntley found sophomore wide receiver Jaylen Dixon for a 14-yard touchdown throw to make it 35-17 with 12:49 left.

NIU would go three and out on their next possession, and place redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Childers in for Bowers midway through their last possession. Childers rushed for a first down but failed to pull NIU out of their own territory.

The Utes took over with 4:29 remaining and ran out the clock to remain undefeated at 2-0. NIU saw their record fall to 1-1.

The Huskies road trip continues next week for another high profile rematch in the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nebraska will seek redemption for an upset loss in 2017 to NIU, while also looking to rebound from an overtime loss to Colorado. 

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday from Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, NE.