Football: Four things to know about Northwestern’s Holiday Bowl opponent, Utah


Luis Sinco/TNS

Utah defenders knock the ball out of the hands of a UCLA receiver during a Utes win earlier this season.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


Northwestern and Utah will meet for just the third time in history, and first time since 1981, in the Holiday Bowl on New Year’s Eve in San Diego.

Much like the Wildcats (8-5, 8-1) in the Big Ten, the Utes (9-4, 6-3) have quietly emerged as a consistent Pac-12 contender in recent years, and also like NU, made a surprising run to their conference championship game this fall before succumbing to a perennial powerhouse.

Here are four things to know about Utah a few weeks ahead of the Cats’ postseason matchup.

1. Major injury problems in the backfield.

Starting running back Zack Moss suffered a knee injury in practice in November, ending his season abruptly. Moss had been one of the better backs in the nation beforehand, rushing for 479 yards over the three games directly prior to the injury to put himself on pace to break the Utes’ single-season rushing record.

Replacement Armand Shyne has been a much lesser part of the offensive plan than Moss was; he hasn’t received more than 17 carries or tallied more than 55 yards in any of Utah’s last three contests.

At quarterback, too, there are concerns. Starter Tyler Huntley was believed lost for the season when he suffered a collarbone injury vs. Arizona State on Nov. 3, but now might return for the bowl game. “It’s still questionable, so I’m not getting my hopes too high,” he said last week, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Huntley is an athletic dual-threat weapon — he rushed 17 times for 88 yards and two scores against Washington State, for example — but his pure passing ability is more erratic. He went just 12-for-20 for 118 yards passing in that same Washington State game as Utah lost it in the fourth quarter.

2. But injuries haven’t derailed their season.

Utah responded to losing Moss and Huntley less than a week apart by ripping off three consecutive regular season-ending wins — edging Oregon 32-25 and routing Colorado 30-7 to clinch the Pac-12 south division, then holding off rival BYU 35-27.

Though the star-lacking offense faltered against Washington in the Pac-12 championship, managing only 188 yards and 3 points, the defense made just as strong a positive statement, and the heavily favored Huskies won only because of a interception return for touchdown.

As a result, the Utes enter the Holiday Bowl as 7-point favorites over the Cats.

3. Holiday Bowl will likely be a grind-it-out game.

It will be hard for the New Year’s Eve contest to match the Pac-12 title game in terms of lack of offensive production, but it might come close. Utah is definitely a defense-first team, especially when it comes to big plays: its defense ranks 16th nationally in terms of limiting explosiveness, while its offense ranks a more meager 87th, per S&P+.

NU, similarly, is 44th defensively yet 121st offensively in explosiveness by the same metric (of course, S&P+ is quite unimpressed by the Cats in general this season, and they don’t rank particularly well in anything).

The two squads will likely be content to manage the clock, eke out first downs, work for a field-position advantage and try to hold the other under 20 points.

4. Whittingham, Fitzgerald have a lot in common.

Kyle Whittingham was promoted from Utah’s defensive coordinator to its head coach prior to the 2005 season, and has since led the relatively low-profile Utes to a remarkable 11 bowl games in 13 years, of which they’ve won all but two. He has a chance to get Utah to double-digit victories for the fifth time in the last 11 seasons with a Holiday Bowl win.

If that sounds familiar, well, Pat Fitzgerald went from a defensive assistant to head coach in Evanston just one year later, in 2006, and has also produced consistent success with a relatively low-profile power conference program. The trip to San Diego is NU’s ninth bowl berth in 11 years.

Both coaches have continued their defensive legacies as head coaches and overcome low-ranking recruiting classes to consistently win with slow-paced, old-school football.

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