The Holiday Bowl in San Diego amounts to a solid consolation prize for Northwestern University of the Big Ten and the University of Utah of the PAC 12. Both teams were the runner-ups in their respective conference championship games. The two hoped to be playing a day later, on New Year’s Day, in the Rose Bowl by winning their conference championships.
The two coaches, Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern and Kyle Whittingham of Utah, find themselves in elite company. Out of the 130 active FBS coaches, Fitzgerald and Whittingham are two of the top seven longest tenured head coaches at their current schools. Fitzgerald took over for the late Randy Walker in 2006, while Whittingham replaced Urban Meyer after Meyer bolted for the University of Florida in 2005. Northwestern and Utah have faced each other twice before, once in 1927 and once in 1981. Northwestern won 13-6 in 1927 while Utah won 42-0 in 1981.
In this matchup, Northwestern will face a top Utah defense which is the 15th ranked defense in the FBS. The Utes have the fourth ranked rushing defense, the 51st ranked passing defense and four All PAC 12 first-team defenders. A pair of juniors lead the defense. Leki Fotu Jr, a defensive tackle, and Bradlee Anae Jr, an outside rusher, are two first-team PAC 12 defensive lineman for Utah. Anae Jr has 7.5 sacks on the season while Fotu Jr will serve as a force in the trenches in stopping Northwestern’s rushing attack. Utah’s linebacker core is centered around senior right outside linebacker, Chase Hansen, who has 114 tackles this season. In the secondary, Utah has another all PAC 12 first-teamer in Jaylon Johnson, a sophomore cornerback. Johnson has four interceptions this season.
Due to Utah’s strong run defense, Northwestern’s path to winning this game will come through the air. However, in order to do this, NU will need to establish some sort of rushing offense. While this may not seem possible given Utah’s stout run defense, the Wildcats have excelled against another elite run defense this season. NU freshman Isaiah Bowser exploded for 165 yards against Iowa, a team with the sixth best rushing defense in all of college football. Northwestern’s rushing offense should be able to move the ball. If Bowser can run the ball effectively, this will open up the field for Clayton Thorson and Northwestern’s passing offense to exploit Utah’s secondary. Given Utah’s strong front seven, Northwestern will run quick routes and patterns so Thorson can release the ball early to avoid pressure from the Utes. Of course, Pat Fitzgerald will have an aggressive game plan as he will have no fear sending the offense out on a fourth down in between the forty yard lines.
Offensively, Utah is not nearly as strong as the team’s defense. With the 69th ranked offense in the country, Utah boasts the 88th ranked passing offense, in addition to the 51st ranked rushing offense in the FBS. To start the season, Utah was led by junior quarterback Tyler Huntley. Nine games into the season, he broke his collarbone and redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley replaced him. Shelley has averaged 215 yards per game in four games, with three touchdowns and four interceptions. It is possible, though, that Huntley will return for the Holiday Bowl, but nothing has been confirmed. Regardless, Utah will play without leading receiver Britain Covey, and starting running back Zack Moss for the bowl game.
Defensively for Northwestern, the team will be without senior outside linebacker Nate Hall and senior defensive lineman Jordan Thompson. Both are key players for Northwestern’s front seven. Additionally, Northwestern has injury concerns in its secondary. NU’s starting cornerbacks, Montre Hartage and Trae Williams, are both injured and the team has yet to announce whether either will play. While having an injured secondary against a gunslinging team like Ohio State put NU at a tremendous disadvantage, it should not hurt as much against a subpar Utah offense. Overall, Northwestern’s defense will be solid and continue to exemplify the bend-don’t-break scheme. However, Northwestern will need play makers (J.R. Pace, Montre Hartage, Jared McGee, Paddy Fisher) to generate turnovers. In order to win, the Wildcats must have a positive turnover margin. Northwestern should compete in this game, and I think the Wildcats can win. In the end, NU’s depleted defense might be too much for the team to overcome.
Prediction: Utah 17, Northwestern 14
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