WHO: No. 17 Utah (9-4) vs. No. 22 Northwestern (8-5)
WHAT: The 41st San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl
WHEN: 7:00 p.m. ET on FS1
WHERE: SDCCU Stadium, San Diego, CA
THE SKINNY: While the Rose Bowl gets the champions of the Big Ten and Pac-12 this season, it is the Holiday Bowl that gets the runners-up for a fun little matchup between Northwestern and Utah. Both schools are making their first trip to the long-standing bowl game.
The great unknown for Utah is the status of quarterback Tyler Huntley. Huntley was thought to be lost for the season due to a collarbone injury, but he has been available for practices and has not been ruled out for the Holiday Bowl. In fact, Kyle Whittingham has refused to name a starter, which suggests there is a chance that not only will Huntley play, but he could even get the starting nod for the Utes offense. If Huntley can be available, that would be a nice lift for a Utah offense as he is the more dependable option compared to backup Jason Shelley.
Northwestern will know they have Clayton Thorson leading their offense, but he can be streaky in good ways and bad. Against a steady Utah defense, that could be an ominous sign. Look for the Wildcats to try getting freshman running back Isaiah Bowser going, but Utah will be focused on stopping the Northwestern running game to force Thorson to try beating them through the air. That may be a risk they are willing to take.
THE LINE: Utah -7.0
THE PREDICTION: Utah 30, Northwestern 24
Northwestern (6-4, 6-1 Big Ten) is heading to the Big Ten championship game. The Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West Division crown on Saturday with a 14-10 win at Iowa on the same day Wisconsin and Purdue each lost, eliminating the Badgers and the Boilermakers from the running.
Clayton Thorson completed a 32-yard pass to Bennett Skowronek with 9:27 to play in the fourth quarter to give Northwestern a 14-10 lead after an instant replay confirmed the call on the field and an extra point. It is a play that will likely be played in the Northwestern highlights for years to come.
Northwestern still had some football to be played though, and the defense rose to the occasion by forcing Iowa to a three-and-out on the ensuing possession. With a chance to add to the lead, however, Northwestern quickly saw their next drive stall in part due to a false start penalty on a 3rd & 1. With Iowa making their way to midfield on the following possession, the Northwestern defense forced Mekhi Sargent to fumble and Cameron Ruiz came up with the loose ball with 4:26 to play in the game. With one more chance, Iowa again fumbled away the football around midfield in the final minutes of the game.
Thorson completed 15 of 30 passes for 122 yards and the go-ahead touchdown, more than making up for the two interceptions he tossed earlier in the game on this particular day. Freshman running back Isaiah Bowser had a career day with 165 rushing yards and a touchdown. A fourth down run to pick up a first down in the final minute allowed Northwestern to run out the clock on the clincher.
Northwestern still has two more games to play in the regular season, beginning next week on the road at Minnesota. The Gophers just demolished Purdue, helping Northwestern accelerate their division-clinching scenario in the process. No matter what happens next week against Minnesota or the week after at home against Illinois, Northwestern will be heading to Indianapolis to play in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 1. Their opponent is still to be determined, although it will pit the Wildcats in a rematch against Michigan or against Ohio State. The Big Ten East Division may not be decided until the final day of the regular season when Ohio State hosts Michigan, although it is possible for the Wolverines to wrap up the East division next week with a win and an Ohio State loss.
Iowa has now lost three straight games and will have to try snapping their losing ways on the road next week at Illinois.
Following a 31-17 victory at home over Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten), Northwestern (5-3, 5-1 Big Ten) will turn the calendars to the final month of the regular season with a chance to win the Big Ten West Division for the first time. The division is now officially in their control with just three Big Ten games remaining on the schedule.
Clayton Thorson struggled in the passing game at times but managed to do enough damage on the ground with two rushing touchdowns and a 27-yard run to help set up a score in the third quarter as he escaped from under pressure closing in on him to take advantage of a wide open right side of the field. It was the kind of gritty performance that bodes well for Northwestern, especially against a Wisconsin team playing without starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook and on a day where the fumble issues of Jonathan Taylor led to some self-inflicted wounds for the Badgers.
With Hornibrook out of the game due to not being medically cleared out of concussion protocol, Jack Coan made his first career start for the Badgers and was rarely asked to make too much happen through the air. Wisconsin relied on their running game with Taylor, Garrett Groshek and Alec Ingold leading the attack. But northwestern’s defense was ready for the challenge and played well at home to preventing Wisconsin from gaining an edge. If anything, Northwestern’s own running game leveled the playing field with Isaiah Bowser continuing to fuel the Wildcat’ running game, with Thorson complimenting the effort.
Northwestern took a 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter and essentially put the finishing touch on the win shortly after Coan fumbled the football deep in the Wisconsin end early in the fourth quarter. The fumble recovery by Northwestern, the third of the day, was followed by a touchdown run by Bowser to build a 21-point lead.
The win moves Northwestern to 5-1 in the Big Ten West, which now includes head-to-head wins against Purdue and Wisconsin. Having played one more conference game than the rest of the division, the Wildcats will own no less than a half-game lead in the division after all games have been played on Saturday (Purdue was playing at Michigan State at the same time and Iowa was kicking off against Penn State later in the afternoon). Northwestern will host Notre Dame next week (looking to play spoiler against the Irish?) but the next Big Ten test for the Wildcats will come in two weeks on the road at Iowa. That game should be of much significance, as a win could potentially put Northwestern one giant step closer to playing in the Big Ten championship game at the end of the season. Northwestern has the road game at Iowa and then a road trip to Minnesota and a home game against Illinois to wrap up the regular season and the Big Ten schedule. It may all come down to what happens in that Iowa game for Northwestern.
Wisconsin, the runaway favorite in the Big Ten West and picked to win the Big Ten and play in the playoff by some in the preseason, now needs a good amount of help if the Badgers are going to make a third straight trip to the Big Ten championship game. At 3-2 in the Big Ten, Wisconsin will look for a rebound win next week at home against Rutgers before two straight road games at Penn State and Purdue. But Wisconsin now needs to finish ahead of Northwestern in the standings to avoid losing out on a head-to-head tiebreaker. That may be wishful thinking at this point.