A memorable football season for Northwestern, which saw the team rebound from a 1-3 start and win the Big Ten west division, ended in spectacular fashion Monday in a 31-20 win against Utah in the Holiday Bowl. The Wildcats (9-5), missing a few important players, directed a massive second-half comeback against the Utes (9-5), a team that had won 11 of its 12 bowl games under head coach Kyle Whittingham heading into the game. The game marks three-straight bowl wins for Northwestern, a program record.
The Wildcats fell into an early hole after Utah quarterback Jason Shelley (27/45, 302 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) threw two touchdown passes in the first quarter. Both occurred within the span of four minutes on the clock. Meanwhile, Northwestern couldn’t get much on offense, hampered by a stuffed run game.
Paddy Fisher forced some life into the Wildcats by stripping the ball from the Utes’ Jaylen Dixon, and Chris Bergen would end up with the recovery at the Utah 42-yard line. However, Northwestern’s offensive line couldn’t keep Clayton Thorson (21/30, 241 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) safe, and a quick three-and-out ensued. The ’Cats would finally put up points with a field goal on their next offensive drive, having been denied a touchdown near the goal line.
Though Utah would march down the field two more times in the first half, they couldn’t quite reach the end zone again. A stout Wildcats defense showed up to force two FGs, and to head into halftime down 20-3. The lone notable play from Thorson before the break was an interception, after a pass to Berkeley Holman wasn’t brought in. His hot-and-cold offense had to play the rest of the game without receiving leaders Flynn Nagel and Ben Skowronek after both were ruled out during the quarter due to injury.
But once the players marched back onto the field, Northwestern looked like an entirely different beast. In what was quite possibly one of the most delirious quarters in program history, the ’Cats came away with four turnovers and four touchdowns in the third. The Wildcats defense would pull through to dominate a once-rolling Utah team the rest of the way.
To keep things as simple as possible, here’s a rough rundown of what happened chronologically: an interception for Blake Gallagher. A Riley Lees 4-yard touchdown. A Joe Gaziano strip-sack and Jared McGee 82-yard fumble return touchdown. A forced fumble by Trae Williams with a Pace recovery. A Trey Klock (senior offensive lineman) 20-yard touchdown. A Lees 8-yard rushing TD. And an interception by Pace.
All the while, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman sprinted for a 52-yard reception, Isaiah Bowser (23 carries, 70 yards) had a couple of solid runs, and the defense shut down the Utes when it wasn’t forcing turnovers. It was an incredible turnaround that saw the Wildcats go up 31-20 in the span of fifteen minutes.
“We talked at halftime about, get a stop, get a score, seize momentum, and the credit goes to our guys,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "They were resilient all year. Today was indicative of our team.”
The Northwestern defense never let up in the fourth quarter, ending any hope of a possible comeback for the Utes. A late game fumble forced by Earnest Brown and recovered by Trent Goens was icing on the cake, bringing the turnover account due a nearly-decade high of six.
“We’re just a resilient team, and we made a few adjustments and it was all about execution," Pace said.
Halfway into the fourth quarter, Thorson took a tough hit heading out-of-bounds and had to be helped off the field. It was a scary scene for the durable quarterback, whose exit had shades of last season’s Music City Bowl injury. But thankfully for Wildcats fans everywhere, he was out walking just a short time later.
The game was the swan song for the winningest senior class in Northwestern history, and the first with multiple ten wins seasons. In the second half, a 24-yard pass to Holman gave Clayton Thorson the distinction of being the all-time passing-yard leader for the ’Cats. His impact on the program will be remembered in school and Big Ten history, and may translate into a pick come the NFL draft.
Also departing are seniors Flynn Nagel, Montre Hartage, Nate Hall, Jared McGee, Tommy Doles, and Blake Hance, and graduate transfer Jake Collins, to name a few.
“It’s only up from here,” said Thorson about the trajectory of the team. “I feel like [the seniors] laid the groundwork for national titles in the future, so I’m so grateful to be part of the program.”
After the game, Thorson and Pace were named the Holiday Bowl offensive and defensive MVPs, respectively, and a triumphant Pat Fitzgerald lifted the trophy in the rain.
Coach Fitz said about the seniors, “They have set the bar, and we are at a whole new level for our program, and we couldn’t be more excited about the future.”