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Utah Utes defensive tackle John Penisini (52) celebrates a fourth down stop against Northwestern Wildcats running back Isaiah Bowser during NCAA football at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

SAN DIEGO — Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham had few complaints about his defense in the wake of Utah’s 31-20 loss to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl Monday night. But that’s a typical refrain for the Utah football team, which has relied on its defense for years while struggling on offense.

It happened again Monday night as the defense held the Wildcats to 322 total yards, below their season average of 353, but six turnovers by the offense made it almost impossible for the defense to bring the Utes a victory.

“Overall it was a good defensive performance — not bad numbers — but we only had one takeaway and were minus five,” Whittingham said. “We kept turning the ball over in succession and the defense got on their heels a little bit and they did a great job of capitalizing on those turnovers.”

The Ute defense had only given up 126 yards in the first half when they took a 20-3 lead, but in the third quarter when the Wildcats kept getting the ball back on Ute turnovers, they picked up 137 yards with three scores coming off turnovers and one on a 67-yard drive after a Ute punt.

“We’ve got to smile in the face of adversity, they got turnovers, but we’ve got to get turnovers as well,” said Ute linebacker Cody Barton, who finished his Ute career Monday. “As far as our defense, we have to make turnovers, as well. It was unfortunate we weren't able to make turnovers, but they were.”

Francis Bernard got the start in place of Chase Hansen, who was unable to play because of an unspecified injury suffered in the Pac-12 championship game and came up with several big plays for the Utes.

“Football is a game of momentum, kind of shifted and killed our morale,” Bernard said. “That’s the way the game goes sometimes.”

NO GO: Besides Hansen sitting out, the Utes were also missing quarterback Tyler Huntley, who had been injured in the Arizona State game, but missed the final four games. He had practiced for much of December but wasn’t quite ready for Monday’s game.

Whittingham explained after why two of the Utes’ top players didn’t suit up.

“For Chase, it was a matter of 'could he heal fast enough' and it got real bleak the past few days and he wasn’t making much progress. Tyler wasn’t able to be cleared in his last x-ray spot in the last 10 days and he’s lost some weight and it wasn’t the right thing to do to play him tonight and subject him to re-injury.”

WEATHER REPORT: San Diego is known for having some of the best weather in the country with temperatures usually in the 60s and 70s with little or no rain.

After clear, warm weather for several days leading up to the game, Monday started off cloudy with temperatures in the high 50 but it started raining a couple of hours before the game. It stopped by kickoff, but the rain continued on and off throughout the game and the temperature was in the low 50s.

BOWL HISTORY: With Monday’s loss Utah fell to 17-5 all-time in bowl games. Utah is now 11-2 under Whittingham. Northwestern improved to 5-10 with its third straight bowl victory.

Last year, the Pac-12 had the worst record in college football last year at 1-8 with Utah, of course, getting the only win for the conference. Before Monday night’s game, the league was 3-2 after Stanford and Oregon won one-point victories in Sun and Redbox bowls.

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GAME NOTES: Jaylen Dixon, a high school teammate of Jason Shelley’s, finished with a career-high nine receptions, but also lost two fumbles. In all, nine players caught passes from Shelley . . . Utah’s six turnovers were a season high . . . With field goals from 32 and 20 yards, Matt Gay closed out his outstanding career with Utah 56 career field goals in 65 attempts . . . Attendance was 47,007, a respectable number, but well off the Holiday Bowl record of 65,416 in 2005 when Oregon and Oklahoma played . . . Before Monday, Utah and Northwestern had met twice with the Utes winning 41-0 in 1981 and the Wildcats winning 13-16 in 1927. Both games were played in Evanston . . . The 82-yard fumble recovery by Northwestern’s Jared McGee was the longest defensive play in Holiday Bowl history and the fifth-longest play in Holiday Bowl history . . . The Utes had already lost to Northwestern in basketball this year, falling at the Wooden Classic in Fullerton 79-57... Utah’s next game is Aug. 29 against BYU in Provo, which will mark the first time the Utes and Cougars have met in the season opener