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Three matchups to watch: Northwestern vs. Utah

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What to watch for in the Holiday Bowl.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern’s Holiday Bowl bout is just days away. Continuing with our gameweek coverage, here’s a look at sometime matchups to look for in the game.

Jaylen Dixon vs. ???

Dixon has impressed as a redshirt freshman. A low three-star recruit from Frisco, Texas, Dixon is a speedster who has amassed 475 yards on over 20 yards per catch. He can fly, and he’ll likely be the top receiving option for the Utes after Britain Covey hurt his knee in the Pac-12 Championship against Washington.

For Northwestern, it’s unclear who will cover the speedy Dixon. It likely won’t be one player, but Montre Hartage’s status is probably the biggest injury question mark hanging over Northwestern entering the Holiday Bowl. Nate Hall and Jordan Thompson have already announced that they’re out, whereas Hartage, who has dealt with hamstring throughout the second half of the season and left the Big Ten Championship early, may or may not play. If he’s in, Hartage will likely handle most of the coverage duties on Dixon.

If Hartage can’t go, the depth chart is iffy at corner. Trae Williams has missed games recently, and we don’t know if he’ll play. Greg Newsome burned his redshirt in the Big Ten Championship, and has had some time to continue to heal since then, so he’ll probably play, and could be the No. 1 corner if Hartage can’t go (Newsome might even get the nod over Williams, if Williams plays). Cam Ruiz should see snaps, and Alonzo Mayo could play on passing downs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Northwestern’s cornerback situation. For an already beat-up NU defense, there’s a lot riding on whether its injured corners are healthy enough to play in San Diego.

Bradlee Anae vs. Blake Hance

Anae leads the Utes with 7.5 sacks, and he’s second on the team with 14 tackles for loss. Northwestern’s offensive line held up down the stretch this season, but the Wildcats probably haven’t faced a defense as good as Utah’s since Michigan. Hance has strung together some good games at left tackle, but against Anae, who primarily lines up as a right defensive end, he’ll need to show up to keep Clayton Thorson’s blind side clean.

At 254 pounds, Anae is a quicker, twitchier end, which is the kind of edge rusher that has given Hance problems in the past (see: Akron). Utah defends the run well, so Northwestern will have to complete some intermediate-to-deep passes to keep the offense on schedule. With strong linebackers behind him, Anae could prevent that happening.

Armand Shyne & Co. vs. Northwestern’s front seven

As mentioned earlier, Northwestern’s front seven is beat up. Jordan Thompson, likely the most under-appreciated player the Wildcats have, was a major disrupter in the running game all season, even providing some pass-rushing ability at times. With Thompson out, Alex Miller will likely slide into the starting defensive tackle role, and he’s capable, though not nearly the player Thompson is.

Plus, Northwestern will be without linebacker Nate Hall, who, despite sometimes missing assignments on the edge and in the passing game, is one of the the Wildcats’ top defensive playmakers. Sophomore Chris Bergin, who has started games this season, will probably step in. Again, Bergin has proven himself to be a competent starter, but he isn’t as talented as hall.

On the flip side, the Utah running game enters this game beaten up as well. Starting running back Zack Moss, the team’s leading rusher by over 600 yards, has missed the last four games after injuring his knee. Armand Shyne has taken over most of the rushing duties since Moss’s injury, and he’s been solid. He rushed for 174 yards against Oregon, but had 55, 47 and 37 yards against BYU, Colorado and Washington, respectively.

In this matchup, both sides aren’t at full strength, though Utah has already had some time to deal with its injury; Northwestern hasn’t (with both Thompson and Hall out).