Players coming into Utah’s football program soon learn what is demanded of them. Among the Utes' standards, sophomore receiver Samson Nacua said, are these expectations: “We don’t lose to those guys down south, and we don’t lose bowl games.”
Not lately, anyway. The Utes have won eight straight games vs. BYU and are 5-0 in bowls in the school’s Pac-12 era, while coach Kyle Whittingham’s 11-1 postseason record gives him the best winning percentage in college football history (minimum 10 games).
In Monday’s Holiday Bowl, the Utes are facing a Northwestern program that claims only four bowl wins. “I wish I had Kyle’s record,” the Wildcats' Pat Fitzgerald said earlier this month, when the coaches made a promotional appearance in San Diego. “You’re 11-1. Unbelievable. I’m going to ask him after the game what he does.”
Utah vs. Northwestern
When • Monday, 5 p.m. MST
TV • FS1
Fitzgerald, whose team has won its last two bowl games, wouldn't be the first to coach to inquire about Whittingham's methods. There's really nothing secretive. Here are four reasons the Utes thrive in December and, occasionally, January:
As Nacua said, the Utes win bowl games. That's what they do, and the players know it.
“The one constant … is that each group feels obligated to live up to what the other groups have done,” Whittingham said. “Every group that comes through wants to make sure they don’t let those guys down.”
Former players appeared in the team's indoor facility during the buildup to the Holiday Bowl, driving home that point. “You've got a long list of alumni that take pride in that streak and that record,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, a former Ute safety.
Whittingham's bowl record (counting the 2005 Fiesta Bowl as co-head coach with Urban Meyer) is better than any probability factors would allow, considering that Utah has been favored in only about half of those games.
Yet it's also true that Utah was a significant underdog (9½ points) only in the 2009 Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama, and that line was inflated by the Crimson Tide's reputation. The Utes simply have performed well enough to win 50-50 matchups in the Whittingham era, losing only to a very good Boise State team as 16½-point underdogs in the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl.
The Utes never have had a player announce he’s sitting out a bowl game to preserve himself for an NFL career, as multiple West Virginia players did in the Heart of Dallas Bowl vs. Utah last December. Utah may be missing senior linebacker Chase Hansen on Monday, but he hasn’t declared himself out of the game.
The best explanation for the Utes' bowl success might be that they take this stuff seriously. They find incentives such as this year's case of hoping to post 10 victories for the second time in the school's Pac-12 era. Bowl games affect how Utah teams are remembered.
“These guys are hungry,” Scalley said. “Ten wins is a big deal. These guys understand that, and it's been a fun group to coach all season and it's not any different now. … I just think it's the mentality. Some people can view [a bowl] as a reward: 'If we win, we win.' But it's another game for us.”
“Coach Whitt, he's just the master of preparation,” Scalley said.
Counting the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30, the Utes played 10 straight weeks after having a bye in mid-September. The players needed a break, and Whittingham understood that. Yet the Utes were back on the practice field a week later, maximizing their allowed practice time for the sake of both the two-deep roster and younger players.
The bowl preparation model emerged from “trial and error,” said Whittingham, who worked for former Utah coaches Ron McBride and Urban Meyer. “ Just working through it, learning from what you did last year, what you want to improve on. We've got it down now pretty good, we think. It's a fine line; you don't want to overdo it and wear 'em out, but by the same token, you want to really prepare. And along the way, to have an opportunity for the young, developmental guys to get extra work.”
December practices are fairly short for the regulars, but the coaches stay about 40 minutes longer to work with other players.
Meyer's continued influence in Utah's bowl preparation is illustrated by the success of Marshall coach Doc Holliday, a former Meyer assistant at Florida. Holliday is 6-0 in bowls, including a 38-20 win on South Florida's home field this month.
“Our kids buy in,” Holliday told Metro News of West Virginia. “They get upset with me sometimes because we do work. It’s like a spring practice to us before the bowl game. We get after them, we are physical with them, we are tough. At the end of the day, as I said in the locker room after the game, that is why we do what we do. This is why we win the games. It is because the way you prepare, and I really do appreciate them. They bought it for six straight times and found a way to win.”
In San Diego, the Utes hope to get a sixth straight bowl win of their own.
Kyle Whittingham's bowl record:
2005 Fiesta Bowl – Utah 35, Pittsburgh 7.
2005 Emerald Bowl – Utah 38, Georgia Tech 10.
2006 Armed Forces Bowl – Utah 25, Tulsa 13.
2007 Poinsettia Bowl – Utah 35, Navy 32.
2009 Sugar Bowl – Utah 31, Alabama 17
2009 Poinsettia Bowl – Utah 37, California 27.
2010 Las Vegas Bowl – Boise State 26, Utah 3.
2011 Sun Bowl – Utah 30, Georgia Tech 27 (OT).
2014 Las Vegas Bowl – Utah 45, Colorado State 10.
2015 Las Vegas Bowl – Utah 35, BYU 28.
2016 Foster Farms Bowl – Utah 26, Indiana 24.
2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl – Utah 30, West Virginia 14.