SAN DIEGO, Calif.—The Utes five-win bowl streak was snapped in the Holiday Bowl and the Wildcats endured post season glory by winning their third-straight bowl game.
It didn’t come easy and Northwestern was down by 17 points heading into halftime. Still, Northwestern rallied back, forced six turnovers, held Utah scoreless in the second half and won 31-20.
The Wildcats accomplished something that hasn’t been done since Barry Sanders played for Oklahoma State and scored 28 unanswered points in the third quarter, which tied for a record in the Holiday Bowl. The motivational speech Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald gave his team at halftime must’ve been one for the ages.
Everything started when Northwestern’s defense had a key third down stop in the red zone right before halftime that limited Utah to a field goal. “It was huge and our defense was resilient,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously the D-line was fabulous on the run plays to fit it right and hold them to three.”
Sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher has been a key contributor in the Wildcats front seven all season long and made clutch plays against the Utes at times when his team needed it the most. “One thing I came into the locker room stressing was to be in the moment, create our own destiny and to not be consumed by the moment,” Fisher said.
It was a rainy afternoon in front of 47,000 fans and Utah had a tough time holding onto the ball, fumbling several times, which was very uncharacteristic from a team coached by Kyle Whittingham. “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,” Whittingham said. “The two biggest factors in the game was the six turnovers and our inability to run the football.”
Northwestern’s defense held Utah’s offense to 115 yards on the ground and no rushing scores. That feat wasn’t surprising, considering Utah(9-5) played the Holiday Bowl without its star quarterback, running back and wide receiver. The Wildcats’ offense struggled to run the ball all game, but found other ways to be effective and put points on the board. Northwestern was held to six first downs in the first half before finishing the game with 17.
Northwestern senior-signal caller Clayton Thorson became the school’s all-time passing leader and finished the game with 241 yards through the air and two touchdowns. “What I’ll remember most about this game is winning and that third quarter, coming back scoring 28 points,” Thorson said. “Our defense kicked the crap out of them(Utah) and it was awesome.”
The Wildcats three-game bowl win streak has been impressive and includes victories over teams from the ACC, SEC and Pac-12. 36 seniors made history for Northwestern(9-5). It couldn’t have happened to a better bunch and the players are loyal to Fitzgerald and he’s loyal to his alma-mater. The Green Bay Packers have shown interest in the 44-year old coach, but he implemented that he’s a Wildcat for life.
Northwestern has finished with a least nine wins in three of the past four seasons and that’s mind-boggling considering the school is known more for academics than athletics. It just shows the quality of work Fitzgerald has put into the program. The team is very young and several key players return for 2019. That means the Wildcats will be contenders in the Big 10 West for years to come.