Northwestern vs Utah
When: 7:00 PM ET, Monday, December 31, 2018
Where: SDCCU Stadium, San Diego, California
Preview for Digital Sports Desk by Gracenote
SAN DIEGO COUNTY CREDIT UNION HOLIDAY BOWL STORYLINES
SAN DIEGO – A season of firsts continues for 22nd-ranked Northwestern and No. 19 Utah as they prepare to clash in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl on Dec. 31. Both programs will be making their first appearance in the well-established bowl, which is in its 41st year. And both the Wildcats and Utes enter the game fresh off their first appearances in their respective conference championship games, with Northwestern falling to Ohio State (45-24) in the Big Ten title matchup and Utah coming up short against Washington (10-3) in the Pac-12 championship contest.
Utah could see the return of starting quarterback Tyler Huntley, who has been sidelined since undergoing surgery to repair the shoulder he injured in the loss to Arizona State on Nov. 3. The dual-threat junior averaged 245.2 yards of total offense and accounted for 15 touchdowns in leading the Utes to a 6-2 start and recently resumed practicing. Coach Kyle Whittingham has said Huntley will step back into his starting role, replacing freshman Jason Shelley, if he’s medically cleared to play.
Northwestern is looking to add another win to its recent bowl resurgence. The Wildcats infamously appeared in only one bowl game (the 1948 Rose Bowl) in the first 101 seasons of their existence, and then – beginning with the 1995 Rose Bowl – made it to nine over the ensuing 17 years – but lost all nine. However, Northwestern and 13th-year coach Pat Fitzgerald have reversed their postseason fortunes of late, winning three of the team’s last four bowl appearances – including victories in the Pinstripe and Music City Bowls over the last two seasons.
TV: 7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1. LINE: Utah -7
ABOUT NORTHWESTERN (8-5): The postseason seemed to be a distant dream when the Wildcats started 1-3, but they reeled off seven wins in their final eight regular-season contests – including road victories over nationally ranked Michigan State (29-19) and Iowa (14-10) – to help propel them to the Big Ten’s West Division title. Led by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson (226.3 passing yards per game, 15 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions) and freshman running back Isaiah Bowser (88.4 rushing yards per contest), Northwestern finished 12th in the 14-team Big Ten in both scoring (23.7 points) and total offense (356.8 yards). Defensively, linebacker Blake Gallagher (112 tackles) and defensive lineman Joe Gaziano (six sacks) head a unit which ranks fifth in the conference in scoring defense (23.5 points) and fourth against the run (132.6 yards).
ABOUT UTAH (9-4): Like the Wildcats, the Utes started slow at 2-2 but then won seven of their final eight regular-season games to capture the program’s first Pac-12 South Division crown. Only days after Huntley went down, Utah lost leading rusher Zack Moss (1,096 yards, 11 TDs) to a freak knee injury suffered while climbing into bed, but Armand Shyne has averaged 78.3 yards on the ground in four starts while 5-8 wide receiver Britain Covey leads the team in receiving (60 catches for 637 yards), has gained 172 yards on 21 carries and even has thrown a pair of option TD passes. Defensively, Chase Hansen moved from safety to linebacker for his senior season and ranks seventh nationally with 22 tackles for loss to lead a unit which is second in the Pac-12 in both scoring defense (18.5 points) and total defense (315.1 yards).