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
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham made one of the more surprising decisions on Monday. Instead of naming the senior captain as his starting quarterback, Whittingham chose sophomore Tyler Huntley to be the team’s starting quarterback in Week 1 against North Dakota.
The decision to go with Huntley means Troy Williams will be reduced to backup duty. Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman will also be sitting down on the depth chart, which is another mild surprise from Salt Lake City.
Williams was Utah’s quarterback last season when the Utes made a push for the Pac-12 South Division before falling just short of the Pac-12 championship game. Williams passed for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns. Williams also rushed for 235 yards and five touchdowns for the Utes.
As a freshman, Huntley appeared in six games and attempted just seven passes for 60 total yards. It would seem Huntley has done a lot to impress the coaches to earn the starting nod over an experienced starter and the transfer option. His improvement in the offseason and athleticism are said to be fueling his rise as a quarterback, so we’ll see how that pays off on the field once the games begin.
The strength of Utah the past couple of seasons has come on defense and in the running game. That recipe may not be too much different this fall, but the Utes are looking to balance things out offensively and get the passing game to pick up some of the slack. Following Utah’s spring game on Saturday, head coach Kyle Whittingham noted the offense could have a slightly different look this upcoming season.
“It’s not a 30-carry a game Devontae Booker situation,” Whittingham said, referring to the bulk of the offense placed in the hands of Utah’s leading rusher a year ago. “We’re going to spread the ball around a little bit more.”
Utah’s spring game showed more wrinkles from the passing game as the Utes look to replace Travis Wilson. Junior Brandon Cox, JUCO transfer Troy Williams (a former four-star recruit at Washington) and freshman Tyler Huntley continue to make their case for the starting nod, although Williams is believed to be the eventual pick. Williams has missed a big chunk of the spring due to injury, giving the others some extra snaps in the spring. Finding stability at the quarterback situation will be essential, at least until Utah finds a running back ready to step up and take on the leading role the way Booker previously did. For now, it appears Joe Williams may be the most likely to take on the bulk of the rushing attempts in the fall. He is certainly thinking and talking like the job is his to lose.
“Going into this spring ball, that was my mentality,” Williams said. “I’ve got the mentality that it’s my job and I’m not going to let anyone take it.”
Running backs coach Dennis Erickson said Williams and Troy McCormick will each see playing time in the fall, and both could be on the field at the same time.
Utah’s running game ranked fourth in the Pac-12 last season with 183 rushing yards per game and an average of 43.92 rushing attempts per game. Devontae Booker was responsible for 26.8 rushing attempts per game and 126.1 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Travis Wilson was the team’s second-leading rusher as well.