SAN DIEGO, CA — No. 22 Northwestern (9-5, 8-1 Big Ten) scored 28 unanswered points in the third quarter of the Holiday Bowl to win their third straight bowl game under head coach Pat Fitzgerald on Monday night.
The team faced off with No. 17 Utah (9-5, 6-3 Pac-12) in the 41st annual San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl in SDCCU Stadium on New Years Eve and struggled early on.
Utah outscored Northwestern 14-0 in the first quarter and limited them to only 63 yards of total offense opposed to their 141 yards.
With Utah moving the chains effectively and forcing stops on defense they were able to easily take a 20-3 halftime lead behind redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley.
Shelly completed 13 of 20 passes for 155 yards and threw two touchdowns. One to wide receiver Jaylen Dixon who caught a pass for 27 yards and the other to tight end Jake Jackson who caught his fourth touchdown pass this season.
Utah who is ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 (No. 10 nationally) in red zone offense capitalized on every opportunity given to them in the first half scoring 3 out of 3 times in the red zone.
The Utes offense was not the only thing applying pressure onto the Northwestern football team.
Their defense also made some noise by sacking Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson twice and forcing the Northwestern offense to have minus-6 rushing yards in the first half.
“Some things that didn’t go very well early,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We tried to get it corrected.”
All it took was a little momentum for Northwestern to get things rolling. Utah’s mistakes turning the ball over led to a horrible second half for the Utes.
Utah began the second half with the ball hoping to pick up where they left off and continue adding to their comfortable lead.
However, Utah quarterback Jason Shelly threw an interception to Northwestern’s Blake Gallagher on their opening drive. This led to a Northwestern touchdown from Clayton Thorson’s 52-yard pass to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman that set up his 4-yard scoring toss to Riley Lees.
The Utes returned on offense and began to drive down the field and had the ball first-and-goal at the 6 when Shelley rolled right, was hit from behind by defensive end Joe Gaziano and fumbled. Then linebacker Jared McGee picked the ball up and took it down the sideline untouched for an 82-yard touchdown that pulled the scoring gap closer 20-17.
Utah quarterback, Jason Shelley completed a 20-yard pass to Jaylen Dixon on the Northwestern 40-yard line, but then fumbled on the play from a strip caused by Trae Williams. It was recovered by JR Pace and returned for 34 yards.
On the ensuing drive, Northwestern took a 24-20 lead when Thorson threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to senior offensive lineman Trey Klock, a key player in goal line and short-yardage situations.
“We really talked at halftime just about going out and playing Wildcat football, fix our mistakes,” Fitzgerald said, “We’ve been here before, let’s go out and get a stop, get a score, get momentum.”
Utah had an 11-point differential to make up to begin the fourth quarter off of 28 unanswered points by Northwestern but continued to struggle offensively and gave the ball away.
“We just lacked ball security the third quarter. We had way too many turnovers. Pretty much cost us the game,” Utah quarterback Jason Shelley said.
Utah had six turnovers, four fumbles lost and two interceptions were thrown.
“It was a shame when we were going out there,” Senior Linebacker Cody Barton said. “We weren’t making plays either.”
Utah has now lost for just the second time in their last 16 bowl games.
Northwestern earn their 3rd straight bowl victory setting a program-best streak, mark the 5th season with at least 9 wins under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Set a new program record for wins in a five year span with 41.
When asked about what does a win like this do for the off-season, quarterback Clayton Thorson and wide receiver Riley Lees thinks it put positive light onto the Northwestern football program and allow the Wildcats to continue making noise in the Big Ten conference moving forward.
“I think it really helps going into the off-season. I think guys see what it takes to win a game like this, how it comes down to little things,” Thorson said. “I see so many young guys who weren’t playing who are going to be really good players.”
The Senior just became the all-time leading passer for Northwestern, completing 21 of 30 passes for 241 yards for 10,731 career yards. He also made his 53rd straight start for the Wildcats, the most by a quarterback in Big Ten history and is the program’s all-time winningest quarterback at 36-17.
“Ending the season with a win like this, it motivates everybody on a high note. It makes us want more,” Riley Lees said. “We won the West, but that’s the bar now, and we got to keep going with that.”
The Wildcats will now go into the off-season with a win and can celebrate. They will also have to replace Thorson, who left his mark on the program in a major way. The Wildcats will be back on the West Coast to open the 2019 season at Stanford on Aug. 31.
As for Utah, they will begin preparing to make another run at a league championship. They will have some key players returning to the team with Britain Covey, their leading receiver staying in the lineup and there might be some quarterback competition between Tyler Huntley, who did not play in the Holiday Bowl due to a broken collarbone, and Jason Shelley.
The Utes will begin their 2019 season with their rivalry game against BYU on Aug. 29.