Holiday Bowl (Utah v. Northwestern)
This coverage of the Holiday Bowl is a continuation of our College Football Playoff coverage!
I talked in my Utes season preview about how much better they would be with Huntley back at the helm. And although it took some time for the offense to gel, they ended up being good enough to get into PAC-12 Championship consideration through winning the South Division.
And then, just like has plagued them basically since they joined the PAC-12; they got bit by the injury bug, hard. Huntley broke his collarbone and Zack Moss hurt his knee — and just like that, they were down two of their offensive stars.
After the painful loss to Washington in the PAC-12 Championship, the Utes lost Gary Andersen and Justin Ena to Utah State and Troy Taylor leaving for a head coaching position at Sac State in a matter of days. However, Troy Taylor back at Utah for one final game.
Passing: There has been a substantial fall in QB efficiency since Huntley’s injury of over 60 points. In October alone, Tyler Huntley threw for 9 touchdowns with only 2 interceptions averaging 10 yards per attempt. If that’s not enough, they averaged 237 yards passing per game on only about 24 attempts per game.
Some drop off was likely to be expected going a Junior to a Freshman, but in addition to the QB rating difference — Shelley managed only 4 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. The average also went below 7 yards per attempt in more attempts to arrive at about 50 yards less per game.
The Utes road schedule put them away to Washington State, Stanford, UCLA, and ASU before meeting up with Washington again in the PAC-12 Championship game. I think this is a factor in the 12 touchdowns, 3 interceptions thrown at home and the 5 touchdowns with 7 interceptions on the road. Glimmer of hope for the Utes though, Tyler Huntley could be back for the bowl game (pending medical clearance) which could give a huge boost for the them. He had been practicing, but ultimately the decision will be a “game-time determination” about his ability to take shots.
Rushing: The Utes rushing attack is probably what’s kept them in all these games this season while the passing game worked out the kinks. By looking at the statistical splits you can see exactly when the pass game started to be effective, October. During this month they averaged almost 5.2 yards per carry, scored 10 touchdowns and saw the greatest number of attempts per game (48). In August/September and November, they averaged marginally over 4 yards per carry, 6.5 touchdowns (averaged), and 38 attempts.
The Utes, to their credit, stepped up big time after the loss of their starter with Armand Shyne and TJ Green keeping the ground game going. Over the course of the season there’s about a 0.75 yard per rush differential but the touchdown numbers are almost identical.
Passing: The Utes actually tend to be better against the pass on the road than they are at home. Fairly substantially so; they’ve allowed 9 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions at home, against 7 touchdowns and 10 interceptions (in one more game). Although, they are allowing almost 80 yards per game (on 8 more attempts) more on the road, I went into detail about their road schedule difficulties.
The majority of the interceptions came in October when the Ute offense was firing on all cylinders and forcing their opponent to keep up, but they are good numbers regardless.
Rushing: The Utes rushing defense was very good on the season, allowing less than 3 yards per carry average. And I think this is skewed by the Utes allowing a full third of their rushing yards in two games (404 yards and 4 touchdowns between ASU and BYU). They also faced Washington two times for a total of 291 yards and 2 of the 13 touchdowns allowed all season.
That means the other nine games they played they allowed a total of just over 600 yards and 7 touchdowns. They’ve faced a consistent number of rushing attempts per game, at about 35. In addition, they are averaging less than 100 yards allowed per game.
Despite some early season troubles against non-conference opponents with Akron and Duke, Northwestern was able to right the ship. They lost to Michigan (who lost out to eventual Big Ten Champions, Ohio State), Notre Dame (who fell short to Clemson in a playoff semifinal) and Ohio State in the Championship game.
Northwestern have had their own share of injuries including Sophomore Jeremy Larkin being forced into medical retirement due to cervical stenosis after only 3 games. Then, Moten IV was forced was forced to miss some time after a leg injury sustained against Nebraska. However, I hate the cliche “blessing in disguise”, but they found a great prospect in Isaiah Bowser, who burst onto the scene in Northwestern’s game against Rutgers.
Also like the Utes, the Wildcats are facing some potential uncertainty after rumors of Pat Fitzgerald being approached by the Green Bay Packers have surfaced.
The Wildcats have been able to keep their starting QB healthy all season, and they’ve done pretty well. Clayton Thorson’s interceptions are really high, and i hope that doesn’t become a liability for them in this game. Although I don’t think it’s super likely that Huntley plays, this could be a significant concern if the Utes can run up the score. In addition, October is the only month where he didn’t throw more interceptions than touchdowns and this was merely a tie.
They throw the ball on average 5 times les per road game (35.5) than at home (40.5). They do this even though they actually gain more yards on the road per attempt (6.5) than at home (6.1). Thorson has been able to mitigate any substantial ups and downs in his QB rating, keeping them almost identical.
The Wildcats also had a tough away schedule which had them visit Purdue (who handed Ohio State their only loss), Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State for the Championship.
Rushing: The Northwestern rushing offense has actually been a little better on the road than at home. They’ve averaged an additional 0.3 yards per carry and 2 more touchdowns on the road (despite playing an additional home game). They scored 13 touchdowns on a road average 122 yards gained with one attempt less than at home.
The Wildcats have been on a bit of a journey of self discovery this season with three different running backs getting meaningful carries. Bowser leads the Wildcats by a sizable margin in carries despite not getting meaningful touches wary in the season. He didn’t really become a part of the offense until Larkin’s medical retirement and Moten IV’s leg injury provided some opportunities.
Passing: The home and away splits are pretty similar for the Wildcats. The areas of difference include a sizable (20 point) drop in QB rating and a more than doubling of interceptions on the road. The road statistics are even more surprising noting that they’ve played an extra home game.
They are also facing nearly 10 more passing attempts per road game (with only about 30 more yards given up). The final difference is that the Wildcats give up an extra yard per attempt on defense at home (7.9) compared to the 6.8 yards per attempt on the road.
Rushing: The rushing defense for the Wildcats has been much better than it appears at first glance. They have allowed 8 rushing touchdowns at home and 6 on the road, but this is largely do to the ridiculous pass/run splits. At home they face just shy of 10 more rushing attempts per game (38) than they do on the road (30).
The actual difference between home and away yards gained per rush is 0.02 more on the road. The additional touchdowns allowed is explained by the 70 additional attempts faced at home. Though they do average about 0.8 yards more allowed per carry than the Utes allow.
The Wildcats away stats are likely a bit skewed due to 202 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns being allowed to Purdue alone. That game alone account ts for nearly 33% of the touchdowns and yardage allowed by the defense. They were incredibly stingy against Ohio State allowing only 108 rush yards and 1 touchdown. The other four games they allowed 3 touchdowns and a total of 300 rushing yards.
The game is played at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, California with kickoff at 4pm PST/ 7pm EST). The neutrals are expecting about 50 points to be scored, and place Utah as one-touchdown favorites.
Keys to a win for each side
Utah (I’m going to do an extra one for Utah because, well… you’ll find out):
- (Wishful Thinking) Get Tyler Huntley back. The team has been pretty anemic since he went out injured. Clearly, this is a long shot since he hasn’t taken any hits at all since the injury. This would make the game even harder for the touchdown underdog Wildcats.
- Let offense lead the defense. I discussed previously the immense difference made by the Utes being able to score. It places huge expectations to keep up on the opposition which tends to mean they try to “make things fit”. This allows the Utes to play for a big play (because they know their offense has their back). And once they get the interception it’s almost like “automatic Andy” never left (he just goes by Matt Gay now). I’ve watched him consistently drill 60+ yarders, and with the defense playing confident and aggressively — they are ok playing this game.
- Throw vertical. One of the criticisms of the site offense is that they are busy doing horizontal trickery. I get that side to side can lead to a big play, but I also know a straightforward five yard pass is still worth five yards. I also think that the trickery-type plays put Jason Shelley in the most uncomfortable positions. Let him develop confidence in his passing, if nothing else, for next year.
- Stay balanced. I feel like this is one of those broken record things that sneaks into my keys. Cliche or not, I think it’s especially true for the Utes because of the change in QB. Huntley was effective because he was a threat with his feet, his arm, and well, Zack Moss. Now, everyone knows about the rush game, but Shelley hasn’t been able to establish himself as the same level of passing threat.
- Pile pressure on the QB. Shelley has struggled throwing interceptions already this season. Couple that with the Wildcats further reduction in opponent’s QB rating and the massive increase in interceptions. The Utes defense has been stout, but if the Wildcats can force bad decisions by Shelley, they might get the easiest scoring opportunity of the day.
- Vary the Runs. This is not just the type of run or the player exclusively but a balance of both. They have two main backs that have seen the majority of the workload this season. I think they need to use both of them in power runs, cuts up the middle, and maybe even some jet sweeps or reverses. Under Coach Whittingham, defense has been a major focus for the Utes — but if the Wildcats can keep a balance of runs and passes and stretch the field it will make the Utes job much harder. Multiple points of attack will help stifle some of the “creativity” the defensive coordinator can use.
- Stretch the field vertically. My prior point focuses on the importance of horizontal points of attack. I think you can stretch the Utes even further by placing pressure on their CBs that will often be on an island because of pressure. This will also limit Utah’s ability to just send the house and hope Thorson makes a bad decision. Utah’s defense has a lot of interceptions, but I think a lot of them are from circumstance and being in the right place at the right time. I am not suggesting Thorson goes Air Raid. It’s important that these be good, calculated throws. The benefit of lengthening the field is definitely helped by some big completions, but intent counts for a lot too. Just make sure it’s not poorly thrown balls that have no where to go — but to the defense.