Northwestern was sleepwalking through the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl when its defense answered a third-quarter wake-up call, nudged its offense to life and produced a comeback the folks back in Evanston, Ill., will be talking about for years to come.
The Wildcats tied a 30-year old Holiday Bowl record with a 28-point third quarter. The offense was the product of the defense forcing four Utah turnovers — two fumbles and two interceptions — in a nightmare quarter for the Utes. Utah had six turnovers in the game.
It sparked No. 22 Northwestern to a 31-20 win over No. 17 Utah on a rainy New Year’s Eve before an announced crowd of 47,007 at SDCCU Stadium. It was the third straight bowl victory — and fourth in five years — for Northwestern (9-5), which denied Utah (9-5) a 15th win in its past 16 bowl games.
“Today was indicative of our team, we faced a lot of adversity in the first half and the guys stepped up and played big,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said afterward as he accepted the Holiday Bowl championship trophy. “At halftime we said, ‘Get a stop, get a score, seize momentum.’ ”
That’s exactly what the Wildcats did with an improbable comeback considering Northwestern could barely get out of its own way during a first half in which Utah built a 20-3 lead.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a quarter quite like that third quarter,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Had complete control of the game coming in at halftime. Came out in the second half and proceeded to turn the ball over five times. Can’t win turning the ball over six times. …. Two biggest factors in the game, the six turnovers and our inability to run the football. For whatever reason, we couldn’t get anything going in the run game, no consistency, no movement on their front. They did a great job, credit them.”
Northwestern linebacker Blake Gallagher — wearing the same No. 51 that Fitzgerald wore when he starred for the Wildcats two decades ago — provided the first spark just two minutes into the third quarter when he intercepted a pass by Utah quarterback Jason Shelley.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson followed with the Wildcats’ biggest offensive play of the game, hitting wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman with a 52-yard pass to the Utah 4-yard line. Thorson threw a touchdown pass to Riley Lees on the next play, making it 20-10.
“Once we got the stop and the score, it was like, ‘Here we go,’ ” Fitzgerald said. “You could just feel momentum shift. Did I think we were going to be able to create that amount of turnovers? I love San Diego, but I love it when it rains on game day. That was sweet. I think it really played a big factor, I really do. I think, obviously, it was raining a little bit harder coming out of halftime than it was before the half. I think that played a role in the game, I really do.”
Northwestern’s biggest defensive play of the game came on Utah’s next drive — with the Utes just 6 yards away from adding to their lead. On first-and-goal from the Northwestern 6-yard line, Northwestern defensive end Joe Gaziano stripped Shelley, safety Jared McGee scooped up the loose ball and ran 82 yards for a touchdown to make it 20-17. It was the longest defensive score in Holiday Bowl history.
Utah was driving again on its next possession and again the Utes fumbled, this by by wide receiver Jaylen Dixon following a reception. Northwestern defensive back Trae Williams made the strip and teammate JR Pace recovered the ball.
Northwestern got creative for its next score, positioning offensive lineman Trey Klock at tight end. He took a short pass from Thorson, then rumbled, stumbled and tumbled into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown, giving the Wildcats their first lead, 24-20, with 4:39 remaining in the third quarter.
Utah’s next drive ended with an interception by Pace, setting up an 8-yard touchdown run by Lees for a 31-20 advantage. The 28 points in a quarter tied the record set by Oklahoma State in its 62-14 win over Wyoming in the 1988 Holiday Bowl.
“We’re just a resilient team, we made a few adjustments,” said Pace, who was selected defensive MVP. “It was a team effort.”
Thorson, who was selected offensive MVP after completing 21 of 30 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns, said the Wildcats had to regroup at halftime: “We looked at each other and we knew we could play better. We came out and did that in the second half. Give the credit to our defense.”
Utah was undermanned coming into the game, but the Utes completely overpowered Northwestern in the first half.
Utah took the field without its starting quarterback (Tyler Huntley), starting tailback (Zack Moss), top wide receiver (Britain Covey) and top tackler (Chase Hansen). Various injuries prevented all four players from suiting up.
Shelley, who took over Nov. 3 when Huntley suffered a broken collarbone against Arizona State, was outstanding in the first half, completing 13 of 20 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. He also was the game’s leading rusher through two periods, with 52 yards on seven carries.
Utah didn’t exactly play it safe without its starters.
In fact, the Utes opened the game with Shelley heaving a pass from his end zone to midfield, where it fell a few yards in front of Dixon.
The drive didn’t amount to anything, but Shelley connected with Dixon for a 27-yard touchdown pass the next time Utah had the ball. That gave the Utes a 7-0 lead with six minutes remaining in the first quarter.
The score was set up by a 19-yard pass from Shelley to wide receiver Solomon Enis and Shelley’s own 12-yard rush.
Shelley, a redshirt freshman from Little Elm, Texas, made Utah’s next drive look even easier.
He carried for 15 yards on the first play of a five-play drive that included passes to tight end Jake Jackson for 22 and 4 yards. Jackson, a La Costa Canyon High graduate, carried the second pass into the end zone for a 14-0 lead with 1:40 remaining in the quarter.