Utah and Northwestern are nearly set to hit the field in San Diego for the Holiday Bowl, a game in which Northwestern seeks its third-straight bowl victory, while Utah seeks its sixth-straight. In advance of the showdown, we got the inside scoop from Shane Roberts of Block U, Utah’s SB Nation site.
Inside NU: How would you evaluate this season for Utah? Was it a success?
Shane Roberts: I’d say so, even if the Rose Bowl was there to be had. Utah was the only Pac-12 South team not to make the Pac-12 title game, and getting that monkey off the back was huge. Winning 9 games is a very nice mark to achieve, and topping the likes of Stanford, USC and Oregon in league was a ton of fun. Also, considering Utah played all of the top teams in the other division, while the likes of USC and ASU missed at least one if not more of them, made the division title sweet. Lastly, winning the last three games of the season, including the ones that clinched the division with the backup QB and RB made it a great story.
INU: What kind of team is Utah?
SR: Blue collar and hard hitting. Utah leads with their elite defense and special teams, which reflects head coach Kyle Whittingham’s mentality. It’s always a dog fight, and the game will not always be pretty with Utah. However, Utah has found a productive offense this year, which had made them much more lethal. Expect some hard hits, and perhaps some weird plays with the Utes.
INU: What’s the latest on the quarterback situation?
SR: We’re not real sure yet. Starting QB Tyler Huntley should be healed from his collarbone injury, the question is will he be cleared for contact in time for practices and prep. If he is, he will likely start. If not, Jason Shelly, who finished the season 3-1 will take the snaps. The two QBs very similar, although Huntley may be the better runner, and I think Shelley has the advantage with his throwing, at least his touch. The offense is virtually the same with either one. They don’t turn the ball over a ton, and they are both dual threat so they’ll stress a defense.
INU: What should Northwestern fans expect out of Utah’s offense in the Holiday Bowl?
SR: Typical spread, but run first. Utah has a very deep running back corps, even without Zack Moss. Armand Shyne is a very good running back, that would start at plenty of P5 programs. He was actually the starter for Utah a couple of seasons ago before he blew out his knee. He’s a hard runner and will pick up tough yards. Behind him is freshman TJ Green. He’s more a speed back and can potentially hit the home run. If he gets the edge he picks up a first down almost every time.
The Utes are going to be down their top wide receiver in Britain Covey, but they still got some guys. Jaylen Dixon is a major deep threat and a favorite of both QBs. The entire group is solid at least, the question is will they hold onto the ball. They struggled early in the season with drops, then they fixed if for the heart of the schedule, and then it killed them in the Pac-12 Championship. Utah will attempt to use their speed, which they have plenty of on offense.
INU: Utah’s defense ranks among the best in the country — what makes this defense so good, and what players stand out the most?
SR: There really is no weakness at all three levels. Utah’s defensive front is one of the best in the country year after year, especially stuffing the run. Utah wants to shut down the run, no matter what, and they’re very good at that. Then the linebackers are fast and free to make plays behind Utah’s stout front. The only question will be if All-American Chase Hansen plays. He can change the complexion of a game by himself. Then on the backend you have a very good secondary, that while they have struggled at times, they will dare you to beat them one on one. Sophomore Jaylon Johnson shuts down one side of the field at corner, and the safeties are head hunters. This defense is very fast, they’re aggressive, and they’ll beat you up. Sometimes the aggression gets the best of them, including stupid targeting penalties.
INU: Prediction time: who wins the game, and why?
SR: Utah is the best bowl team in NCAA history, by percentage points. They win bowl games, and I don’t expect that to change this season. Northwestern is a good matchup for the Utes with their physical run at you style, which plays right into Utah’s hands. I expect the Utes to win a grind out affair 27-20.