This year’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl brings us a matchup of top-25 teams, as the no. 17 Utah Utes play the no. 22 Northwestern Wildcats. Game time is at 7:00 EST on Monday, December 31, at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego. Fans can catch all the action on FS1.
According to this year’s bowl game betting odds, the Utes are favored by 6.5 points over Northwestern. The over/under for the game is set at 45 points.
For Northwestern, this game will cap off one of the more memorable seasons in program history. After starting the season 1-3, including a puzzling home loss to Akron, the Wildcats won seven of their last eight games. They finished Big Ten play 8-1, winning the West division and earning their first-ever invitation to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Despite losing the title game to Ohio State, the Wildcats will still be satisfied with their 8-5 record. Northwestern is now going to their ninth bowl game in the last 11 years. They are just 3-5 in bowl games under Pat Fitzgerald. However, the Wildcats have been victorious in their bowl each of the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, Utah is also coming off a loss in their conference championship game. Also like Northwestern, the Utes won seven of their last eight games to close out the regular season, allowing them to finish atop a crowded and mediocre Pac-12 South division. Alas, Utah fell short in a 10-3 defensive slugfest with Washington in the conference title game.
Nevertheless, this will be the 12th time in four seasons under Kyle Whittingham that Utah finishes the season in a bowl game. The Utes currently have a five-game bowl winning streak and have an astounding 11-1 record in bowls under Whittingham. With a win in the Holiday Bowl, Utah will also secure their second 10-win season since moving to the Pac-12 in 2011.
Finally, this game will serve as the all-time rubber match between these two schools. Northwestern beat Utah back in 1927, but the Utes returned the favor when the schools met again in 1981. The Holiday Bowl will be the third all-time meeting between Northwestern and Utah and the first in over 35 years.
While Northwestern was a great story this year, Utah is undoubtedly the better team in this game. The Wildcats will get the most out of their talent and put up a fight, but I think the Utes will prevail in the end. With Whittingham’s bowl record, I can’t bet against Utah with a single-digit spread. It won’t be easy, but I think the Utes will cover.
At the moment, there appears to be a good chance that Utah gets starting quarterback Tyler Huntley back in time to play in the Holliday Bowl. Huntley broke his collarbone late in the year, forcing him to miss the final four games of the season. But he’s optimistic that he’ll be medically cleared to play by New Year’s Eve. The Utes fared well with backup Jason Shelley. But Huntley offers more experience, as well as a bigger and more physical runner at the quarterback position.
The Utes will need Huntley and his running abilities with 1,000-yard rusher Zack Moss unable to return from injury in time for the game against Northwestern. Backups Armand Shyne and T.J. Green provided suitable replacements for Moss late in the year. However, given how tough the Northwestern defense was against the run this season, the Utes will surely benefit from having Huntley as both a running and passing threat.
On the other side of the ball, there have been concerns about the Northwestern offense all season. The Cats didn’t even find a productive running back until freshman Isaiah Bowser emerged late in the season. Bowser ran for over 100 yards four times in his last seven games, scoring six touchdowns during that span. However, he only gained 4.6 yards per carry on the season, and even that number is slightly exaggerated by his 166-yard performance against a lackluster Illinois team late in the year.
Bowser and the Northwestern offense will face one of their biggest tests of the season in the Holiday Bowl. The Utah defense conceded just 102 yards per game and three yards per carry on the ground this season. Even the likes of Washington, Oregon, and Stanford couldn’t muster much of a rushing attack against the Utes. That doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that the Wildcats will fare any better.
Without a steady running game, the Wildcats will put too much pressure on the shoulders of quarterback Clayton Thorson. The senior has come up big for Northwestern on a number of occasions throughout his career. But he’s typically not someone who can carry the team for 60 minutes. Thorson threw 14 interceptions to just 15 touchdown passes this year and averaged just over six yards per pass attempt. He’s usually limited against top-flight defenses. That’s exactly what he’ll face against Utah.
I expect the Wildcats to scratch and claw enough to make this game close at halftime. But the Utah offense should eventually put some points on the board, and when that happens, I don’t think the Northwestern offense can keep up. The Utes gave up less than 20 points per game this season, and that’s with eight games against bowl teams. They should be able to limit Northwestern enough to win by a touchdown and cover the spread.