Utes fall in Holiday Bowl 31-20 to Northwestern.
When the bowl game was announced, Bradlee Anae was happy. A collective sigh from Utes fans across the Wasatch Front. Not El Paso!, Anae thought.
As the rain poured and Gus Johnson gloved up, Utah experienced a San Diego unfamiliar to the program – a loss in the postseason. These Utes had bigger plans, but that’s the cruel truth of “Expectations vs Reality”. Utah turned the ball over four times in the third quarter and fell 31-20 in the Holiday Bowl to Northwestern. Kyle Whittingham dropped to 11-2 in bowl games.
The third quarter drive chart was a nightmare. Interception, punt, fumble returned for a touchdown, fumble, punt, int. Not going to get it done after a dominating first half that sent Utah into the break up 20-3.
Whittingham tried to protect his redshirt-freshman signal caller by playing coy on Tyler Huntley’s injury in the lead up. But with Jason Shelley at quarterback, the margin was thin. Against Washington, Shelley’s three interceptions (one miraculously returned for the winning score) sunk the shorthanded Utes. 6 against the Wildcats. Utah is 1-7 under Whittingham with 5+ turnovers. Hard to overcome self inflicted wounds.
But 2018’s Utes persevered through losing Huntley and future NFL running back Zack Moss due to injury. South title secured on November 17. Without leading receiver Britain Covey, Utah was within a drive in the Pac-12 Championship. This season showed resiliency.
2019 needs more of the same, but with better injury luck. The Utes graduate the defense’s starting safeties in Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair and linebackers in Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. The offense loses three offensive lineman and an offensive coordinator. Other losses will come with players going to the NFL. Anae, Moss, Leki Fotu, and Julian Blackmon are the potential departures.
And still, Utah will enter the new year as the Pac-12 South favorite. Talented USC will need to overcome its own mismanagement. How can they lose to #JustARegularTeam? Arizona proved flashy on an SI cover, but lousy on the field. UCLA is rebuilding. And Arizona State lost its quarterback and leading receiver. The Sun Devils are a wild card and far from a sure bet.
Replacements are within the program. Penn State grad transfer linebacker Manny Bowen signed earlier this month. LB Francis Bernard and safeties Phillip Afia and Terrell Burgess earned valuable spot duty. Freshman offensive lineman Braedan Daniels garnered rave reviews from Kyle Whittingham in fall camp.
Stability in the South. Utah’s new OC inherits a full cupboard. He’ll need to convince a quarterback to join this year’s recruiting class, but these are workable problems to deal with.
Close the door on 2018. Walk into 2019 with your head held high.