Holiday Bowl Primer: Utes meet carbon copy Wildcats

The stage is set in San Diego as the No. 17 Utah Utes meet up with the No. 22 Northwestern Wildcats in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl. 

The matchup pits two teams with similar styles against one another as both teams employ a fairly conservative offense and a hard-nosed defense. The similarities between the programs don’t stop there. Both fairly unheralded programs within their conference, Northwestern and Utah fly under-the-radar. They both, however, defied odds in 2018 en route to division titles. 

The Pac-12 South champion Utes faltered early, dropping their first two conference games to Washington and Washington St. They responded pretty well, I’d say. Utah went on to win their next four in blowout fashion. 40-21 over Stanford, 42-10 over Arizona, 41-28 over USC. Finishing the run with a 41-10 win at UCLA, the Utes scored forty or more points in four straight contests for the first time in the Pac-12 era. It put them back in the driver seat for a division title. Fast forward two weeks and the sky is falling on The Hill. Starting QB Tyler Huntley goes down with a broken clavicle during a 38-20 loss to Arizona State. Zack Moss needs season ending knee surgery. With less than a month left in the season, the Utes now had to find a way to replace 84 percent of their total offensive yardage. They did just that. Freshman QB Jason Shelley II stepped in seamlessly, as did junior RB Armand Shyne. The Utes reeled off three straight wins to wrap up the season and the South title. For the first time in program history, the Utes would play in the Pac-12 Championship game. 

The shorthanded Utes came up short in the title game as UW bested them once again, earning the Huskies a birth in the Rose Bowl. The Holiday Bowl, being the next best Pac-12 option, is a good consolation prize for Utah. 

Northwestern began the season similarly. After losses to Duke, Akron and Michigan, the Wildcats were dead in the water. They responded with seven straight Big Ten Conference wins, enough for a West title. Like Utah, they fell to the conference mainstays, 45-24 to Ohio State. 

Turnarounds like that don’t happen by coincidence. That kind of response is a sign of a team with good leadership. In both cases, that starts at the top – Kyle Whittingham and Pat Fitzgerald. Both were uber-successful as linebackers at the college level and use that approach in their coaching. It’s easy to see the effect it has on their players. Gritty, stable, consistent, tough, focused, perseverant are just a few words that can be used to describe each program. It’s also no coincidence that both coaches have seen steady success in the postseason. With time to prepare, guys like Whittingham and Fitzgerald are lethal. 

“There’s a lot of common ground with the two programs,” Whittingham told the Chicago Tribune. “We operate with more of a blue-collar approach. We’re former linebackers who are cut from the same cloth in a lot of ways. We subscribe to the same basic beliefs about how to run a program.”

Fitzgerald’s club has won their last two bowl games and, while that is impressive, it pales in comparison to Whittingham’s bowl accolades. 

Whittingham boasts a bowl game winning percentage of 92%, the best in NCAA history. His eleven wins is second among active coaches. The Utes are 5-0 in bowl games during the Pac-12 era. 

Even Fitzgerald is envious of numbers like that. 

“It’s unbelievable, really,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m going to ask him after the game what he does.” 

Something’s got to give, though, as the close to carbon copy programs meet up tonight in San Diego. 

No. 17 Utah(9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) and No. 22 Northwestern (8-5, 8-1 Big Ten) are set to kickoff the 41st annual Holiday Bowl at 5p.m. MT. You can watch the game live on FS1, listen live on ESPN700 and follow along at #NWvsUTAH.

Game Notes per Utah Athletics 

> Pac-12 South Division champion Utah and Big Ten West Division champion Northwestern are both making their first appearance in the Holiday Bowl.

> Utah is designated as the home team.

> Including bowls, Utah is 27-1 against non-conference opponents since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 (3-0 this season).

> In his 14th season as Utah’s head coach, Kyle Whittingham is the longest-tenured active coach in the Pac-12 Conference and the third-longest tenured active coach at the same school in the NCAA FBS.

> Whittingham is 4-0 against the Big Ten (3-0 vs. Michigan and 1-0 vs. Indiana). Utah’s win over Indiana was in the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl in San Francisco.

> Utah and Northwestern are 1-1 in their series history with the Wildcats winning in 1927 (13-6) and Utah winning in 1981 (42-0). Both games were played in Evanston, Ill.

> Utah is No. 17 in the final College Football Playoff (CFP) ranking. The Utes are No. 19 in the Coaches and No. 20 in the AP polls. Utah’s highest ranking this season was No. 15 CFP and No. 16 AP and Coaches.

> Utah appeared in every CFP ranking from 2014-16 and five times this season.


> Utah is No. 2 in the nation (No. 1 Pac-12) in red zone defense (63.9, 23-of-36)

> Utah is No. 3 in the nation (No. 1 Pac-12) in field goals made (24)

> Utah is No. 5 in the nation (No. 1 Pac-12) in rushing defense (101.8)

> Utah is No. 9 in the nation (No. 1 Pac-12) in tackles for loss per game (7.9)

> Utah is No. 1 in the Pac-12 (No. 10 nationally) in red zone offense (0.911, 41-of-45)

> Utah is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in opponent third down conversion percentage (34.2)

> Utah is No. 2 in the Pac-12 (No. 15 nationally) in net punting (40.65)

> Utah is No. 2 in the Pac-12 (No. 15 nationally) in total defense (315.1)

> Utah is No. 2 in the Pac-12 (No. 16 nationally) in scoring defense (18.5)

> Utah is No. 2 in the Pac-12 in fewest penalties per game (5.15)

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in first down defense (221)

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (186.8)

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in sacks per game (2.69)

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense (115.88)

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in interceptions (14)

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in defensive touchdowns (3)

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in punt return defense (5.46).

> Utah is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in fewest penalty yards per game (47.77).

> Utah is No. 3 in turnovers gained (20; 14 INT, 6 FR).

See sidebar on page 3 for more Utah rankings

Two-Minute Drill

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham played in the first four Holiday Bowls (1978-81) as a linebacker for BYU and was the Defensive MVP of the 1981 game. In 2009, he was inducted into the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame … Utah is the only school in NCAA history with a Ray Guy Award winner (Mitch Wishnowsky in 2016) and Lou Groza Award winner (Matt Gay in 2017) on the same squad. Wishnowsky is the only three-time Ray Guy finalist in the history of the award. Wishnowsky and Gay were both consensus All-Americans in their first season of NCAA football (Wishnowsky in 2016 and Gay in 2017) and Wishnowsky is the only three-time All-American at any position in Utah football history … Utah has 29 native Californians on its bowl squad … Against AP-ranked opponents, Utah is 7-16 in the Pac-12 era and 1-2 this season (lost to No. 10 Washington twice, beat No. 14 Stanford) … The Utes have sold out 57 straight games in Rice-Eccles Stadium since the 2010 season opener.

Ute Honors

Utah boasts three 2018 All-Americans—senior punter Mitch Wishnowsky (Walter Camp, Associated Press, AFCA), senior linebacker Chase Hansen (FWAA, Sporting News, The Athletic) and senior kicker Matt Gay (AP, FWAA, Pro Football Focus). Eight of the nine honors were second team (Gay was third team AP). The All-America trio headlined a school-record nine Utes on the 2018 All-Pac-12 Conference first team. The nine first-team picks led all Pac-12 teams. Including two honorable mention picks, 10 of Utah’s defensive starters earned all-conference honors. The Utes also captured three of the four first-team specialist awards.

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