Before we ring in the New Year, we have six bowl games on the docket for Monday. One of the beter matchups of the day features a pair of nationally ranked squads which reached their respective conference title games. The 8-5 Northwestern Wildcats will be squaring off with the 9-4 Utah Utes in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, a game for which the latter has been installed as a seven-point favorite.
The Wildcats took down the Big Ten West division off the strength of an 8-1 mark in conference play. They faced off with the Ohio State Buckeyes in the conference title game, losing by a score of 45-24. Northwestern didn’t fare as well outside of the Big Ten play, as they dropped all three of their non-conference games. This is a well-balanced team which counts three victories over Top 25 teams on its 2018 resume.
The Utes had a little bit of a tougher time in Pac-12 play, finishing up with a record of 6-3 in conference games. That was enough to take down the Pac-12 South division and advance to the conference championship clash, where they fell to the Washington Huskies by a margin of 10-3. Utah was undefeated in games outside of the conference in 2018.
This tilt has the potential to be one of the better contests from the remaining slate of bowl games. Let’s take a look at this matchup in full detail, starting with the game line.
Northwestern vs. Utah, 7 PM EST, Mon. December 31, FS1
Northwestern vs. Utah pick:
Not much was expected from Northwestern when they opened up the season with a record of 1-3, a run which included a close 20-17 loss to the Michigan Wolverines. However, the Wildcats kicked it into overdrive down the stretch, winning seven of their final nine games. They fell to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the regular season, and came up short versus Ohio State in the Big 10 title game last time out.
Utah opened up the season in unspectacular fashion as well, starting off with a mark of 2-2. They would also step their game up substantially from that point, also winning seven of their final nine. Losses over that span included a disappointing 38-20 loss to the Arizona State Sun Devils and a hard-fought loss to Washington in the Pac-12 championship contest.
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Northwestern’s season included a trio of impressive wins over conference rivals who were nationally ranked at kickoff. They took down the Michigan State Spartans and Iowa Hawkeyes on the road, and also handled business at home versus the Wisconsin Badgers. Three of the team’s losses were by 10 points or more, but the Wildcats were competitive in all games on a tough schedule.
After losing back-to-back games to Washington and Washington State earlier in the season, it didn’t look like it was going to be the Utes year. However, the team turned things around big time the rest of the way, a run that started off with a big 40-21 victory over a Stanford Cardinal team that entered the game ranked #14 in the nation.
As the above stats indicate, these two programs match up really well. Utah gets the edge in the run game, but Northwestern has the more solid passing attack. The Utes are statistically stronger on defense, but the Wildcats have demonstrated throughout a hard schedule that they are no slouches in that department either.
Northwestern is tops in the nation in fewest penalty yards per game, which serves as a testament to the solid work that head coach Pat Fitzgerald does with this team. We should be in line for a fun game between two evenly matched squads.
There are no head-to-head matchups to worry about for these two programs, but we have plenty of recent bowl game history to dive into. Over the last five times, these two programs have gone bowling, Northwestern has gone 3-2, while Utah has a stellar 5-0 mark.
The Wildcats have won their last two, a 24-23 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats in last year’s Music City Bowl, and a 31-24 decision over the Pitt Panthers in the previous year’s Pinstripe Bowl. Following the 2015 season, Northwestern was hammered by the Tennessee Volunteers to the tune of 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.
The Utes impressive bowl game run includes a 30-14 victory over the West Virginia Mountaineers in last year’s First Responders Bowl. Their previous two postseason games were much closer, a 26-24 win over Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl, and a 35-28 victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl the year before that.
Underdogs have won three of the last five Holiday Bowl games, and they are also on a 4-1 run against the spread. Last year, Michigan State was a three-point favorite over the Washington State Cougars, and they walked off the field with a 42-17 win. This year, Utah stands as a touchdown favorite over Northwestern.
This is a solid matchup of two programs who outperformed in 2018, and they should combine for a memorable contest. While Utah has the edge from a stats standpoint, Northwestern has demonstrated throughout the year that they come to play week in and week out. We are expecting more of the same in the Holiday Bowl.
This is a contest that could legitimately go either way, but we’ll give the nod to the favorite as the likely winner on a straight-up basis. However, we fully anticipate Northwestern to make a game of it and bring this one down to the wire.
We’ll take Northwestern plus the points.