Wildcats, Utes look to rebound from conference championship game losses out in San Diego
The No. 17 Utes (9-4) claimed their first Pac-12 South title this season behind an improved offense and one of the nation's toughest defenses. Utah is playing in its fifth consecutive bowl game and sixth overall since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. In that stretch, the Utes have posted a 27-1 record against non-conference opponents.
The No. 22 Wildcats (8-5) claimed their first Big Ten West title this season after bouncing back from a 1-3 start. Northwestern relied on tough defense to rip off seven wins in the team's final eight regular season contests. This marks the fourth straight bowl game for the Wildcats and 15th overall. Northwestern has a 4-10 all-time bowl record, although the Wildcats have won two straight.
This is the third meeting between the two schools. The series is tied 1-1 with Northwestern winning 13-6 in 1927 and Utah winning 42-0 in '81.
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: Northwestern (8-5) vs. Utah (9-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: SDCCU Stadium (San Diego)
Spread: Utah -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Tyler Huntley return to lead Utah's offense?
When Huntley broke his collarbone in the third quarter of Utah's 38-20 loss to Arizona State in November, that injury seemingly marked the end of the junior quarterback's season. That may not be the case after all.
Huntley has progressed quickly in his recovery and rejoined the Utes for practices in mid-December. He is listed with Jason Shelley as co-starter at quarterback on Utah's depth chart for the Holiday Bowl. If cleared to play, Huntley will start at quarterback for the Utes. This is potentially good news for a Utah offense that will be without top running back Zack Moss and top receiver Britain Covey — both of whom suffered season-ending injuries.
Before being sidelined, Huntley totaled 1,788 yards and 12 touchdowns in Utah's first nine games. During the team’s four-game winning streak in October, he completed 73 percent of his passes (66 of 90) for 879 yards and seven touchdowns. Shelley picked up the slack nicely in Huntley's absence, totaling 867 yards on offense in four starts — including back-to-back 200-yard passing games against Oregon and Colorado.
Whoever gets the start will likely feast on Northwestern's secondary. The Wildcats rank 12th among Big Ten teams both in pass defense (258.1 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (134.9).
2. Can Northwestern move the ball against Utah's defense?
Moving the chains and scoring points hasn't been a simple task for the Wildcats this season. Northwestern ranks 12th among Big Ten teams in both total offense and scoring offense. The Wildcats are producing 23.7 points and 356.8 yards per game. They scored more than 24 points in a game just five times this season.
That's not a good trend going in against one of the nation's top defenses. Utah's defense is typically punishing to virtually any opponent, but the Utes have taken it up to an extra level in 2018. The Utes lead the Pac-12 in red zone defense (63.9 percent, 23-of-36), rushing defense (101.8 ypg), tackles for a loss per game (7.9) and opponent third down conversion percentage (34.2). They rank in the top 20 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense, allowing 315.1 yards and 18.5 points per game.
Chase Hansen, the Pac-12 leader in tackles for a loss (22.0), could be a game-time decision for the Holiday Bowl. His absence will impact the Utes, but they still have plenty of disruptive playmakers for Northwestern to worry about, including Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu, Cody Barton, Javelin Guidry, and Jaylon Johnson. Anae, Fotu, and Johnson all ended up being All-Pac-12 first-team selections along with Hansen this season.
3. Will the Wildcats adjust to losing a pair of defensive standouts?
Northwestern will be playing without a pair of key defensive starters in the Holiday Bowl. Senior linebacker Nate Hall and senior defensive tackle Jordan Thompson will both be sidelined with injuries.
Hall had surgery after battling shoulder issues during the year. He missed four games, but still finished the season with 51 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, and three pass breakups. Thompson had a big impact up front, finishing with 30 tackles, six TFLs and three pass breakups in 13 games. His season is done after undergoing knee surgery.
Sophomore linebacker Chris Bergin and junior defensive tackle Alex Miller will likely fill those empty slots in the starting lineup. Bergin has tallied 43 tackles and a pair of TFLs. Miller is a little more untested with just 11 tackles and a single TFL.
The good news is that plenty of playmakers are still ready to go for Northwestern's defense. Joe Gaziano leads the team with 11.5 tackles for a loss and was an All-Big Ten second-team selection. Paddy Fisher was named to the first team at linebacker. Fellow linebacker Blake Gallagher is the team's top tackler with 120 stops.
Never bet against Utah in a bowl game. The Utes are 11-1 in bowl games under Whittingham and 17-4 overall. Whittingham owns the best bowl winning percentage in NCAA history and has the second-most bowl victories among active FBS coaches. Utah will have to make do without some key playmakers on both sides of the ball. Still, the Utes know how to get the job done at this time of the year. Northwestern could be in for a major challenge. The Wildcats posted a 6-0 record against divisional opponents in the Big Ten, but went 2-5 outside that division. Their offense isn't strong enough to contend with Utah's defense, which means the Utes should have no trouble notching yet another bowl victory.
Prediction: Utah 27, Northwestern 20
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.