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Grading out the Utes’ performance in the Holiday Bowl

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Minutes 1-30 were great for the most part on Monday night in San Diego. Minutes 30-60? Not so much. As I write this I feel as if I’ve said it no more than 10 times already this season (I’ll set the over/under at 8.5) but this really was a tale of two halves from the Utes as they took on Northwestern in a matchup of Pac-12 and Big 10 runner-ups. The Utes got off to a tremendous start, jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead before squandering it away in the third quarter as Northwestern came back to take a 31-20 advantage. So like I said, it was a tale of two halves for Utah but I only have one grade to give out to each unit.

Offense - D

No Huntley, no Moss and no Covey for the Utes as they prepared to face a tough Northwestern defense. But that didn’t seem to hamper them much in the first half of play. The first half was impressive on the part of the Utah offense. Shelley was slinging the ball around. Shyne was bouncing off of defenders. Jaylen Dixon made impressive plays. The offense was rolling. But then the rain started to fall and the offense began to play even sloppier than the conditions. Not that I’m making excuses for how the offense played in the second half but the rain certainly played a factor. You don’t fumble the ball away four times unless the weather conditions are bad. And you don’t win games if you fumble the ball away four times, especially when you pair them with two interceptions for a grand total of six turnovers. Needless to say, that’s not winning football. The saving grace for the Utah offense was the first half of play and the 20 points they put up is the only reason they didn’t get an F grade.

Defense - B

Don’t be fooled, the final score was not indicative of how the Utah defense played all game long. The Utes defense was great as usual. Yes, the Wildcats managed to put up 31 points - although 7 of them came off of a fumble returned for a TD - but it’s tough to dominate all game long especially when your offense puts you in difficult positions and you are constantly on the field following turnovers and quick three-and-outs. Overall the Utah defense was great. Holding the Wildcats to 3-14 on third down and stopped them on fourth down three times. Additionally, the Utes defense limited a good Northwestern rushing attack to just 80 yards on 40 attempts, good for just 2.0 yards per carry. The Utah coaches will have their hands full replacing some of the contributors from this defense, namely Cody Barton, Marquise Blaire, Chase Hansen, Corrion Ballard and possibly Leki Fotu. Hats off to this defense, one of the best we’ve ever seen.

Special Teams - A

The special teams unit was adequate for the Utes in their bowl game. Watching the game there was nothing that I looked at as something they should have done better or could have done better. Mich Wishnowski in his final game as a Ute was his usual self, averaging 46.2 yards per punt that included a 63-yard bomb. And fellow senior Matt Gay was 2/2 on field goal attempts and 2/2 on extra points. Gay ends his career with 54 made field goals on 63 attempts, good for a career percentage of 85.7. With no Britain Covey for Utah, it was returner by committee for the Utes and each one of them played mistake free. All in all, it was a good day for the special teams, although they had no major impact on the outcome of the game.

Coaching - D

This was the most challenging part of this recap. Coach Whitt is the winningest active coach in the nation when it comes to bowl games, going 11-1 in bowl games coming into the game against Northwestern. That record now stands at 11-2, which still is good for the best winning percentage in bowl games among active coaches. But that is what makes the game against Northwestern so frustrating. How can a coach that has proven to be one of the best of all time when it comes to bowl games seem so complacent? The Utes came out a delivered the first punch in the first half but when it came to making adjustments it was Northwestern who excelled. I understand the old saying ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ so not making any huge adjustments at halftime is understandable, but there’s such a thing as in-game adjustments and it seemed as if the Utes didn’t make any of those either as Northwestern ran away with the game in the second half. For the coaches, the bowl game is behind them now as Kyle Whittingham’s attention turns to finding a new offensive coordinator.