San Diego • With all the comparisons between Utah and Northwestern pointing toward a slog-a-thon, a punch-you-in-the-mouth defensive struggle, the question then becomes this: From an entertainment standpoint, will the Holiday Bowl end up being a forgettable snooze-fest, an ugly game only Buddy Ryan could like?
That’s not this particular bowl’s tradition, what with final scores in past games being notable for their explosion of offense and points. In nearly half of the bowl’s 39 games since its inception, the teams have combined for 60 or more points. In 14 of the games, one of the participants has scored at least 40 points. In five games, a team has scored 50 or more points.
Some of the contests were downright ridiculous, such as three consecutive games from 1979-81, when BYU lost to Indiana, 38-37, SMU lost to BYU, 46-45, and BYU beat Washington State, 38-36. In 1986, Iowa defeated San Diego State, 39-38. In 1989, Penn State took out BYU, 50-39. Oregon edged Texas in 2000, 35-30. The following year, Texas slipped by Washington, 47-43. Texas outscored Arizona State in 2007, 52-34. In 2014, USC beat Nebraska, 45-42.
There have been some exceptions, but there must be something in the air in San Diego in late December, and usually it’s a spiraling football.
The lowest scoring game ever in the bowl was a dull-as-a-doorknob 13-13 tie, thrown up in 1991 by Iowa and BYU.
Despite the bloated scores, many of the games have been close, 20 of them decided by a touchdown or less.
Utah-Northwestern, though, is neck-deep in slowing the scoring, not inflating it. Six of the Utes’ opponents were held to 10 or fewer points this season. The Wildcats can’t match that resistance numerically, but they do not score a whole lot of points. The biggest number they posted, twice, was 34, once in a loss, once in an overtime win.
The Utes, conversely, scored 40 or more points five times, so they did show that when the wind blew right, when the stars aligned, when the karma came together, when the aura on the field was just so, when they executed properly, they could push or fling the ball into the end zone.
It’s just that when they ran up against a quality defense, the offensive going on a few occasions got rough, including against Northern Illinois and in the two games against Washington, the most recent coming in the Pac-12 title game, when Utah went for all of three points.
A defensive battle would favor the Utes because, despite defense being Northwestern’s strength, Utah’s defense is better. If by some chance the ball-in-the-air-in-San Diego thing happens again, that would favor the Utes, as well, considering that Utah is better on the attack than the Wildcats.
The Utes will be hurt by the absence of receiver Britain Covey, who was injured in the Washington game. But they could benefit by the return of quarterback Tyler Huntley. Some reports have indicated that the original Utah starter is a go, although coach Kyle Whittingham said Sunday that it would take “a miracle” for Huntley to play.
Whoever plays — Huntley or freshman Jason Shelley — will have to be precise when passing the ball against Northwestern’s zone coverage, a defensive structure that forces opponents to dissect it with high efficiency. Which is to say, the Wildcat D stresses keeping the ball in front of that secondary, stopping longer passes and bigger gains.
Overall, Northwestern finished 40th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 36 touchdowns in 13 games, and a total of 305 points. By comparison, Utah was 16th in scoring defense, yielding 31 TDs and a total of 241 points.
On offense, the Utes ranked 66th in scoring, averaging 28.7 points a game. The Wildcats ranked 106th, averaging 23.7.
Northwestern was particularly ineffective in running the ball, ranking 117th nationally in that category, getting just 117.5 yards a game. If the Wildcats can move the ball on the ground, that would be surprising and troubling for Whittingham, who always emphasizes as a top defensive strategy stopping the run. That means pressure will be on a Wildcats passing attack that averaged 239 yards. Utah’s defense allowed 213 passing yards per game.
Northwestern has played its opponents relatively close this season, staying within two touchdowns of all of its regular-season opponents, and usually within one. In games against Notre Dame and Michigan, the Wildcats lost by a combined 13 points. The only team to smoke Northwestern was Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, and that game was blown open late, on account of turnovers, after the Wildcats closed to within three points in the third quarter.
The guess here is that the game will buck the trend and tradition in the Holiday Bowl and be somewhat southernly in scoring, but more for Northwestern than for the Utes. Short of blowing their own toes off with mistakes, Utah should win this game by a touchdown or two, no matter how low or high the numbers go, regardless of what’s in the air in San Diego.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.