SAN DIEGO — Holiday Bowl coaches Kyle Whittingham and Pat Fitzgerald have a lot in common. The similarities are unmistakable. So it was no surprise that they showed up for Sunday’s press conference dressed alike. Both coaches wore suit jackets without ties.
“Well, we’re told how to dress,” Whittingham joked.
There’s a lot of other threads, such as an UnderArmour affiliation, that link Utah’s Whittingham and Northwestern’s Fitzgerald. They were linebackers of note in college. As coaches, they both led their respective teams to division titles and conference championship games.
And then there’s academics. Northwestern has a 99 percent graduation success rate. Utah isn’t far behind at 95 percent.
Now, the similarities cross paths. The 22nd-ranked Wildcats (8-5) and 17th-ranked Utes (9-4) meet Monday (5 p.m., FS1) in the Holiday Bowl at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to be around coach (Fitzgerald) when he's in action on the field. We sent our staff there a few years ago. When they came back they said it was like a mirror image as far as how we run things and (how) they run things — just the structure, the energy, the type of practices they have,” Whittingham said. “From what I get from my staff, there's a great deal of similarities. I take that as a compliment. If we can be like these guys, I think that's a big positive.”
Fitzgerald also noted how alike the two programs are, adding that they both want to play the game the right way — and that’s not all.
“We're very similar from the standpoint that both teams have overcome a ton of adversity from injuries. To see the way that younger guys stepped up on their tape, as you continue to watch, they just kept getting better and better,” Fitzgerald said. “The way they finished, able to come back and win games down the stretch. There's a reason why they played in the Pac-12 championship. They were outstanding, outstanding season. We're going to have our hands full as far as schematics.”
The biggest tie may be that the Utes and Wildcats are both coming off losses that cost each team a berth in the Rose Bowl. Utah dropped a 10-3 decision to Washington in the Pac-12 title game, while Northwestern got pounded by Ohio State, 45-24, in the Big Ten finale.
Neither squad is looking back, however.
“You get what you earn,” Fitzgerald said. “We earned the privilege to go to the Big Ten championship.”
Northwestern overcame a 1-3 start to the season to win the Big Ten West. The Wildcats finished 8-1 in conference play. Their only losses after September came in a non-conference game against Notre Dame and the setback to Ohio State.
Utah, meanwhile, is making its first trip to the Holiday Bowl after a major accomplishment in the regular season.4 comments on this story
“It was a big step forward for us to win the Pac-12 South. Not that we did that and we were satisfied, that was the ultimate goal, but it's something we had not done before,” Whittingham said. “Bottom line, we've been in the league eight years, something we had not been able to achieve. Been close. Tied for it one time. We weren't able to get that outright championship that gave us an opportunity to play in the Pac-12 championship game, which obviously is the stepping stone to the Rose Bowl. We're elated to be where we're at, gives us something to shoot for in the future.”
SDCCU Holiday Bowl
No. 22 Northwestern (8-5) vs. No. 17 Utah (9-4)
- SDCCU Stadium — San Diego
- Dec. 31, 5 p.m. MST
- TV: FS1
- Radio: ESPN 700AM