Northwestern On Shutout Alert In Holiday Bowl Against Utah

Friday, December 21, 2018 2:28 PM UTC

Friday, Dec. 21, 2018 2:28 PM UTC

Get the latest college football picks on the Holiday Bowl between Northwestern and Utah. The game from San Diego is on Monday, December 31 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1. Bet confidently with tips from SBRpicks.com.

Holiday Bowl: Northwestern (8-5 SU, 6-6-1 ATS) vs Utah (9-4 SU, 7-6 ATS)Monday, Dec. 31, 7 p.m. ET (FS1)SDCCU Stadium, San DiegoFree NCAAF Pick: Utah ATSBest Line Offered: Pinnacle

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Long-time coach Kyle Whittingham will prepare Utah well. He is 11-1 SU in bowl games, having covered four of the last five. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t share Whittingham’s success in bowl season, but respect is still at stake for him by proving oddsmakers wrong. The Wildcats are 5-1-1 ATS as underdogs.

How They Got Here

Northwestern came up with enough offense at the right moments—like a 99-yard drive late against Nebraska and a game-winning drive against Rutgers and enjoyed some breaks against teams like Purdue, which had quarterback issues at the start of its season, Michigan State, whose offense was ravaged by injury, and Wisconsin, whose star running back forgot how to carry the ball. They made it to the Big 10 championship and got blown out by Ohio State. Utah overcame injuries to score 30+ points seven times, while laying clunkers against Wazzou, Washington, and in the desert of Arizona State. It faced Washington in the Pac-12 Championship and lost 10-3.

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Why Northwestern Can Win/Cover

The Wildcats allow only 23.5 points per game. The Utes will miss their star running back Zack Moss and leading receiver Britain Covey, while starting quarterback Tyler Huntley is banged-up, but will play. Moss leads Utah with 1,092 yards on 6.1 YPC. His backup Armand Shyne only has 4.5 YPC on fewer carries. Without anybody on Moss’ level, the Utes may remain one-dimensional on offense. Northwestern’s pass defense excels at limiting big plays. It ranks 27th in opposing yards per completion because the secondary likes to keep the ball in front of it. This game could play out similar to Northwestern’s 14-10 win against Iowa or 29-19 win vs. Michigan State where the Utes shut down the opposing running game and forced the opposing quarterback to grind out successful drives for his offense by throwing 40-50 mostly short passes. The Wildcats are 4-0 ATS as underdogs when they hold their opponent to fewer than 21 points.

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Why Utah Can Win/Cover

Utah boasts one of the highest-ranked defenses in terms of S&P+, Northwestern has one of the worst offenses. The Utes rank 12th in run defense and 30th in pass defense based on S&P+. Northwestern has faced four teams that rank in the top 30 in pass defense S&P+, Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan State, and Iowa. Against Michigan, Notre Dame, and Iowa, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson failed to complete 60 percent of his passes, throw for 150 yards, and throw more touchdowns than interceptions. He did do well against a Spartan pass defense that, at the time, was one of the nation’s worst and that struggled until cornerback Josiah Scott returned later in its season. Northwestern won’t run well, either, because Utah ranks sixth in opposing YPC. Utah’s run defense showed that it can shut down power running backs—like Northwestern’s Isaiah Bowser— when it limited Oregon’s C.J. Verdell, among others, to 28 yards on 11 carries. Utah has covered three in a row when limiting the opponent to fewer than 170 passing yards and four in a row when keeping the opponent from reaching 100 rushing yards.

Common Opponents/Series History

Both faced a MAC opponent. The Utes shut down Northern Illinois in a 17-6 win. Northwestern lost to Akron in the beginning of the season, which is a historically tough time for Northwestern.

The Verdict

When Utah put up 40+ points in every game from October 6 to October 26, Huntley threw for over 170 yards and 70% completion in each of them. He struggled against the strong pass defenses of Washington and Washington State, which employ many defensive backs, linebackers who succeed in pass coverage, and enjoy a lot of speed. Northwestern, which ranks 75th in passing defense per S&P+. has none of those elements and hasn’t replaced the loss of its two best defensive backs during the offseason. Its conservative style, which is evident in a high ranking in opposing yards per completion and a low one in opposing passer rating, plays into Huntley’s hands. Utah has a number of small-sized receivers who excel at finding open spaces in the shorter passing game and Huntley can use them to be effective.

Against the top-30 passing teams, minus Michigan State, Northwestern produced between 14 and 21 points. Utah has only scored fewer than 30 points against the top pass defenses of Washington and Wazzou and in the desert. The Utes will win by double-digits.

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