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Pac Mentality: Utah Looks to Exploit Northwestern’s Weaknesses in Holiday Bowl

Jason Shelley

Missing both its starting quarterback and running back, Utah managed just 188 yards and three points against Washington’s elite defense in the Pac-12 championship. To their credit, the Utes held the Huskies offense to three points, too, with a pick-six being the difference in the game. Utah finished the regular season 9-4 straight up and 7-6 against the spread.

After winning at Purdue to start the season, Northwestern dropped three consecutive home games to Duke, Akron and Michigan. Although it advanced to the Big Ten championship, an 8-5 regular-season record is riddled with red flags in the form of those ugly early-season losses and the statistical resume to date. The Wildcats are 6-5-2 against the spread and have failed to cover their last two games.

Utah opened as an 8.5-point favorite, but the unknown status of the starting quarterback combined with the Utes’ (lack of) production against Washington likely pushed the line to -7. Northwestern’s moneyline is +240 and the point total opened at 45 with a slight uptick to 46.

In 40 previous Holiday Bowls, the average total has been 57 points and the average margin of victory 12.2 points. Since 2014, when the postseason matchup began to feature Pac-12 vs Big Ten representatives, the average total has dipped to 54.8.

  • Northwestern is 6-1-1 ATS in its last eight games as underdog.
  • The total has gone UNDER in four of Northwestern’s last five games in December.
  • Utah is 6-1 SU and 5-2 ATS in its last seven games as favorite.

Northwestern vs Utah Holiday Bowl Game Center


Utah – The Utes are 14-1 straight up and 11-4 against the spread in bowl games all-time. They’re 5-0 SU and 4-1 ATS in bowl games the past five postseasons.

Head coach Kyle Wittingham had a great quote as it pertained to the health status of starting quarterback Tyler Huntley, who has missed the past four games with a broken collarbone: “There’s two things I’m good at, being vague and that other thing.” While humorous, whether or not Huntley plays does matter to us. His backup is freshman Jason Shelley, who has been game-managing his butt off to the tune of 190 pass yards per game with three touchdowns, four interceptions and three rushing scores.

They’re also without starting running back Zack Moss, who sustained a season-ending knee injury … getting into bed. His 121.8 rush yards per game with 11 touchdowns have been replaced by a committee that has averaged 152 rush yards per game – 35 yards below their per game average.

Defensively, the Utes rank fourth nationally against the rush, 24th against the pass and possess the best red-zone defense. Opposing offenses have converted only 63.9 percent of their trips inside Utah’s 20.

Northwestern – The Wildcats are 3-9 straight up and 6-6 against the spread in all previous bowl games. The UNDER has hit in back-to-back bowl games.

The offense averages 4.75 yards per play, which ranks 124th, and 3.2 yards per rush, which ranks 125th. So, one would imagine the pass offense has to produce at a much better rate, right? Wrong. Northwestern’s passing game averages 239 yards per game with a paltry 15:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. With average to below-average defense, one must wonder how Northwestern is going to put points on the board.


The sun will set about 50 minutes after kickoff. So, midday temperatures in the mid-60s will drop into the 50s. The wind will not impact the game.

Northwestern sophomore kicker Charlie Kuhbander tore a muscle in his right leg in the season opener. Despite missing five regular-season games, he’s remained on the active roster and returned for the Big Ten title game. He connected on his lone field-goal attempt and three extra points against Ohio State.

Listed at six feet and 230 pounds, Utah’s stocky senior boot Matt Gay has made 24 of 29 field goals and all 43 extra-point attempts this season.


Northwestern’s smoke-and-mirrors campaign was exposed by Ohio State via an offensive barrage. In the Holiday Bowl, Utah will smother the Wildcats defensively to the point where Northwestern’s 107th-ranked scoring offense will be lucky to score 20.

I lean the Utes to win, cover and the UNDER because I’m not confident the Wildcats hold up their end of the bargain.