In a season that for both teams came up with a loss in the Conference Championship, the University of Utah will face off against the Wildcats of Northwestern University in their last game of the season, at the San Diego County Credit Union (SDCCU) Holiday Bowl on Dec. 31.
The No. 17 Utes (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) and No. 22 Wildcats (8-5, 8-1 Big Ten) are set to meet at SDCCU Stadium for the first time in both competing against each other and playing in the Holiday Bowl. Both teams are coming off of losses in their respective conference championships, Utah losing 10-3 to the University of Washington, and Northwestern falling 45-24 to the Ohio State University Buckeyes. The two conference winners are facing off the next day in the Rose Bowl.
Utah’s road to the Holiday Bowl was as windy as can be. After starting 2-2, including two straight in-conference losses, the Utes rattled off four straight wins, decimating USC, Arizona, UCLA and Stanford, and skyrocketing into first in the Pac-12 South. The team then dropped an ugly home loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils, losing starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and leading rusher Zack Moss with season-ending injuries. The team would rally around Jason Shelley and Armand Shyne, and win out the remainder of their regular season schedule, before being picked apart by a stingy Washington secondary in Santa Clara. While not ending on top, the season was a huge success for the team, who found depth at all positions en route to their first Pac-12 South championship in school history.
Northwestern found themselves on a similar road to the Holiday Bowl. A slow start saw the Wildcats at 1-3 a quarter in, after three straight losses to Duke, Akron and Michigan. They would follow that up with a four-win streak of their own, featuring wins against ranked teams in Michigan State and Wisconsin. Sandwiched in between those announcement wins, however, were ugly, sloppy victories against Rutgers, beating the 1-11 team by only a field goal, and another field-goal win against Nebraska, who finished 4-8 on the year. The Wildcats would lose just one more time in the regular season, with a hard-fought loss to Notre Dame, before dropping the conference championship game.
The name of the Holiday Bowl will most likely be the defense for both sides. Utah, on the season, has let in an average of 18.5 points per game, one of the lowest in the nation. The Utes still rank first in the Pac-12 in red-zone defense, fifth in rushing defense and ninth in tackles for loss. That, coupled with Utah’s top-ranked red-zone offense, gives the Utes the advantage against the Wildcats, who have had their share of trouble keeping opponents off the scoreboard. The Wildcats allow around 24 points per game this season, which Utah will look to take advantage of with a new-look offense.
Utah will be relying on their depth in this game, as all three leading point-getters — Matt Gay aside — are out for this game, with the exception of starter Tyler Huntley. Huntley has traveled with and practiced with the team in the days leading up to the game, and most likely, will co-start with Shelley, who has a 4-1 record as the team’s starter, including a three-interception performance against Washington. Britain Covey will not be playing after suffering a torn ACL on a kickoff return in the Pac-12 Championship, and so Jaylon Dixon, the second-leading receiver, will likely receive a majority of the targets.
The game can be watched on Fox Sports networks, and kickoff is slated for 4:00 PT/5:00 MT from SDCCU Stadium.