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9 things to know about Utah

An introduction to Northwestern’s Holiday Bowl opponent.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Conference Championship-Utah vs Washington Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern’s Holiday Bowl matchup with Utah (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) just days away, it’s time to kick our bowl coverage into full gear. We’ll start here by previewing the Utes, a team that ran through most of the Pac-12 before ultimately falling to Washington in the conference championship. Here are some things to know about Utah:

1. Basic information

The University of Utah is located in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it has an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 24,000 students. Utah played in the Mountain West Conference from 1999-2010, and has played in the Pac-12 since 2011. Utah played in two BCS bowl games during the BCS era — the 2005 Fiesta Bowl against Pitt and the 2009 Sugar Bowl against Alabama — and won both. Oh yeah, and Urban Meyer coached there from 2003-2004.

2. Kyle Whittingham

Whittingham is in his 14th year at the helm at Utah, and, in some ways, he’s similar to Pat Fitzgerald. He’s been coaching at Utah since 1994, working his way up from defensive line coach to defensive coordinator, and ultimately became the head coach in 2005 after Urban Meyer left for Florida. Whittingham has a career record of 120-60, and he’s 11-1 in bowl games. He was the American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year for the 2008 season, which ended in the Sugar Bowl victory.

3. This season

The Utes are 9-4 thus far this season, with losses to Washington (twice), Washington State and Arizona State. In non-conference play, Utah beat Weber State, Northern Illinois and BYU.

Utah didn’t play a ton of close games — it only had three games decided by eight points or fewer — but those three games all came in the team’s final four games. The Utes fell 10-3 to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship in one of the ugliest college football games of the season.

4. Statistical profile

Utah, at 9-4 and 6-3 in the Pac-12, ranks 17th in the country in S&P+, 63 spots higher than 8-5 Northwestern. The Utes rank No. 43 in offensive S&P+, No. 22 in defensive S&P+ and No. 7 in special teams S&P+.

The Utes average over 186 yards per game rushing, the 51st-best mark in the country. Defensively, though, Utah ranks fourth in the country, in rushing defense; the Utes allow 101.8 yards per game on the ground. Meanwhile, Utah is 88th in the country in passing at just a shade under 210 yards per game.

5. A quarterback transition, then question mark

Junior Tyler Huntley started the first nine games of the season, leading Utah to a 6-3 record while throwing for 1,762 yards, 12 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Huntley broke his collarbone against Arizona State, however, thrusting redshirt freshman Jason Shelley into action. Shelley hasn’t been great — he’s thrown for 860 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions — but he’s gone 3-1 as a starter. Huntley is the better runner of the two, having rushed for over 300 yards this season.

Kyle Whittingham has indicated that there’s a good chance Huntley will be back for the Holiday Bowl, though nothing is official yet. Huntley is throwing, but he has yet to be publicly cleared for contact. Huntley has been quoted saying he doesn’t want to get his hopes up, so it remains to be seen who will start under center in San Diego.

6. RB Zack Moss is out

Utah’s top running back, Zack Moss, was in the middle of a good season before hurting his knee and missing the final four games of the season. He had rushed for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns on 6.1 yards per carry before the injury.

Junior Armand Shyne has carried most of the load since Moss’s injury, totaling 313 yards and three touchdowns in four games.

7. The Utes have a balanced passing attack

Britain Covey leads Utah with 60 receptions for 637 yards, though he’s out for the Holiday Bowl after a knee injury in the conference championship game. Aside from Covey, Utah has three players with 297 yards or more receiving. Jaylen Dixon is the deep threat and lead target of the Covey-less bunch, having hauled in 23 catches for 475 yards and averaging 20.7 yards per catch.

8. Strong defense

Utah is in the top 30 in the country in sacks and first downs allowed, as well as No. 8 nationally in tackles for loss. The Utes don’t force tons of turnovers, but they’re solid and tough to consistently beat defensively. They’re run defense is as stiff as any Northwestern has faced this season (aside from maybe Michigan State), so Isaiah Bowser & Co. have their work cut out for them.

9. Elite kicking game

Kicker Matt Gay is 24-of-29 on field goals this season, and all of his misses have come from 40 yards or more. He’s 7-of-10 on field goals between 40 and 49 yards, and he’s 3-of-5 from beyond 50 yards with a long of 55 yards. Not bad for a college kicker!

Australian punter Mitch Wishnowsky also averages a tidy 45 yards per kick.