Northwestern vs. Utah: Holiday Bowl preview and predictions

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No. 22 Northwestern (8-5) vs. No. 17 Utah (9-4)

Location: San Diego | When: Dec. 31 (7 p.m.) | TV: FS1 | Line: Utah -7

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HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Northwestern: The Wildcats started the year 1-3, including a home loss to Akron. But from there, things turned around in a big way. Northwestern upset Michigan State on the road, the first of four straight wins. The winning streak stopped at the hands of Notre Dame, but three more wins closed out the regular season. With the team’s 14-10 road win over Iowa, the Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West division title to set up a matchup with Ohio State in the conference championship game. The Wildcats hung tough in that one, but Ohio State was too much to handle.

Utah: After a lackluster 2-2 start to the season, Utah won seven of its next eight games. The only loss came on the road to Arizona State in a game where starting QB Tyler Huntley broke his collarbone. Through the rest of the regular season, backup Jason Shelley filled in admirably and led the Utes to the first Pac-12 South title in program history. Shelley quarterbacked wins over Oregon, Colorado and a wild comeback win over BYU. However, the offense scuffled mightily in a 10-3 Pac-12 title game loss to Washington.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH

This is probably the best game of the day. It’s a fun matchup between two division champions who play a similar brand of football. Both are tough defensively and aren’t afraid to try to run the ball down your throat. There should be fun quarterback play, too. Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson is a fifth-year senior on the radar of NFL scouts. For Utah, Huntley is expected to be back from the collarbone injury. Is there a better way to bring in the New Year?

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Paddy Fisher, LB, Northwestern: Fisher is only a sophomore but already has 214 tackles in his college career. Fisher earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts in 2018. Entering the bowl game, Fisher has 103 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and an interception.

Chase Hansen, LB, Utah: Hansen made the transition from strong safety to linebacker before the season, and it has gone exceedingly well. The senior earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors, and deservedly so. Hansen has wracked up 114 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions on the year. Pretty good.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws during the first half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws during the first half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Northwestern: The Wildcats can reach the nine-win mark for the fifth time during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. A win would also mark a third straight bowl victory. Northwestern won the Pinstripe Bowl in 2016 and the Music City Bowl last year.

Utah: Kyle Whittingham’s teams just don’t lose bowl games. The Utes have won their last five bowl games, including the last four years, and 11 of 12 overall during his tenure (if you include the 2004 Fiesta Bowl). He can make it 12 for 13 with a win over Northwestern.

PREDICTIONS

Nick Bromberg: Utah 20, Northwestern 16
Sam Cooper: Utah 27, Northwestern 24
Pat Forde: Utah 24, Northwestern 16

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