The time has come. On the final day of the year, the No. 22 Northwestern Wildcats (8-5, 8-2 B1G) will end their 2018 campaign in the always-classy city of San Diego against a solid No. 17 Utah Utes (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) team. While the season already feels redeemed ever since the Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West after a 1-3 start – not to mention that the Big Ten Championship certainly had a bowl game atmosphere – a win in the Holiday Bowl would serve Northwestern well. It would extend their bowl game winning streak to 3, give them their best primetime win of the year, and most importantly to Pat Fitzgerald, send the seniors off on a positive note. Defeating Utah will be no easy task, however, as the Utes present challenges on both sides of the ball. Northwestern has the talent to win this game, but fans should not necessarily expect that to happen.
On paper, Utah is convincingly the better team. We have seen all year that S&P+ has not been kind to the Wildcats. Following the Big Ten Championship, Northwestern now ranks 80th overall – a dismal mark relative to their No. 22 position in the AP Poll – whereas Utah ranks 17th. The Utes have a superior rank on offense, defense and special teams, and have 2.4 more Second-Order wins than Northwestern despite being just one game better by record.
Both teams have faced pretty stiff competition this year, given that they made their Power 5 conference championships. Northwestern was lucky enough to draw Rutgers and avoid the top 3 teams in the Big Ten East during the regular season, but still faced a home gauntlet of Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Notre Dame in addition to Purdue, Michigan State and Iowa on the road. That was good enough for the 24th toughest schedule in the nation. By the same metric, Utah was 28th with two matchups against No. 9 Washington (both losses) in addition to games against Washington State, Stanford, Oregon and USC.
Both sides are facing injuries that could make this game more unpredictable. Most notably, Northwestern will be without senior linebacker Nate Hall due to a shoulder injury. Hall accumulated 51 tackles (5.5 for loss) on the year in addition to snagging 3 interceptions. The Wildcats will also be without senior tackle Jordan Thompson after he recently underwent knee surgery. Thompson was a major part of this top-notch defense, with 6 tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles on the season. Kicker Drew Luckenbaugh and top receiver Flynn Nagel are listed as questionable, but expect to see them out there on Monday night.
Utah is arguably even more banged up than the Wildcats, especially their offensive skill positions. The Utes will definitely be without top wide receiver Britain Covey and top running back Zack Moss. Starting quarterback Tyler Huntley - who has missed the last 4 games - is a game-time decision, but according to head coach Kyle Whittingham, it would “take a miracle” to see him with a helmet on on Monday.
Matchups to Watch
Northwestern’s strengths are its run defense and its resurgent rushing attack led by Isaiah Bowser. In addition to a stellar special teams unit, Utah prides itself on its defense – like, Fitzgerald, Whittingham is also a former linebacker – and playing tough.
The Utes have depth on offense and will present big-play threats even with their injuries. A key factor to watch will be whether running back Armand Shyne can get anything going on the ground. If the Wildcats can contain him, they stand a good chance of holding Utah below their season average of 27.7 points per game.
On the other side of the ball, Utah probably has a stronger run defense than Ohio State, and that doesn’t fare well for Bowser, who was only able to muster 60 yards in the Big Ten Championship. Two of Utah’s losses (to Washington and Arizona State) came when the opposing running back dominated. This game will be a big test for Bowser and the offensive line after a subpar performance in the Big Ten Championship.
Huntley and Jason Shelley – the two potential starting quarterbacks for Utah – are both dual-threat quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to throw a deep ball. Northwestern has to hope that Montre Hartage is at 100 percent to cover the speedy Jaylen Dixon and potentially the Utes’ top redzone threat, Samson Nacua. Significant responsibility also falls on Trae Williams and Greg Newsome.
Lastly, this is Clayton Thorson’s 53rd straight start and, more notably, his last football game in a Wildcats uniform. Despite his inconsistent season, Thorson can take pride in leaving the program in a much better state than when he started. Thorson should be able to move the ball between the 20s (partially depending on Flynn Nagel’s availability), but the red zone might be a different story. Utah boasts the best red zone defense in the country: The opposing offense only scores on a ridiculous 64% of red zone attempts. Thorson will need to avoid turnovers and convert red zone opportunities to put the ‘Cats in a good position to win. The Wildcats also need Charlie Kuhbander to convert all of his kicks within 40 yards, which is far from a certainty.
Northwestern 26, Utah 20 - Jono Zarrilli
Behind a barrage of 20-30 yard field goals from Kuhbander, Pat Fitzgerald sends the seniors off with a victory and puts a dent in Kyle Whittingham’s ridiculous bowl record.
Northwestern 17, Utah 14 - Jacob Munoz
Northwestern 14, Utah 20 - Shreyas Iyer
Northwestern 21, Utah 34 - Navpreet Sekhon
Northwestern 17, Utah 20 - Claire Kuwana
Northwestern 24, Utah 21 - Charlie Sidles
Northwestern 41, Utah 3 - Trevor Lystad
Upon hearing about the Packers’ interest in hiring him, Pat Fitzgerald decides to dominate his final bowl game, fly to Green Bay and take the head coaching job by force. The program descended into chaos as every player declares for the draft and is immediately drafted or signed by Green Bay. Also, Clayton Thorson throws 6 touchdowns and gets drafted number one overall.
Besides, the Utes have to be the one Power 5 team that’s softer than Northwestern.