Northwestern Upsets Utah in Holiday Bowl

Northwestern Upsets Utah in Holiday Bowl

The Utah Utes imploded in the third quarter of New Year’s Eve Holiday Bowl. The Northwestern Wildcats were all too happy to capitalize off Utah’s blunders, and rode the third quarter to an upset victory over the Utes, 31-20.

Northwestern Upsets Utah in Holiday Bowl

A Tale of Two Halves

First Half

The first half of the 2018 Holiday Bowl belonged to Utah. All 20 points scored by Utah on New Years Eve were scored in the first half. Jason Shelley did not look like the backup quarterback after throwing two touchdown passes in the first quarter. Shelley would also lead his team down the field for two field goals in the second quarter.

The Utes defense was playing lights out, and everything pointed to a Pac-12 victory. Northwestern produced one drive over 40 yards in the first half and only managed to come away with a field goal. Those three points would signify the only offensive success Northwestern would have in the first half.

Northwestern Upsets Utah in Holiday Bowl
SAN DIEGO, CA – DECEMBER 31: Utah Utes DB Javelin K. Guidry (28) and Utah Utes LB Cody Barton (30) combine to sack Northwestern Wildcats QB Clayton Thorson (18) during the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. (Photo by Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Northwestern would produce 131 total yards of offense in the first half. The Wildcats had eight official offensive possessions in the first half. Their offensive drives would proceed as follows:

      • Seven plays, 37 yards, PUNT
      • Three plays, six yards, PUNT
      • Six plays, 20 yards, TURNOVER ON DOWNS
      • Three plays, negative five yards, PUNT
      • Three plays, negative eight yards, PUNT
      • Eight plays, 62 yards, FIELD GOAL
      • Four plays, 20 yards, INTERCEPTION
      • One play, negative one yard, END OF HALF

Northwestern went into the locker room with negative six rushing yards, and were down 20-3. Time to pull out the rally caps, folks.

Second Half

Thankfully, there are four quarters in a football game (who knew?!?) and Northwestern was able to forget the first half quickly. The third quarter would prove to be much more gracious to the Wildcats offense and defense. The success of the offense would not have happened without the Wildcats defense forcing three turnovers in the third quarter!

The Wildcats team would capitalize on all three turnovers and score twenty-one unanswered points in a nine minute stretch. Northwestern would add another score late in the third after Riley Lees eight yard touchdown run. At the end of the third, Northwestern had a two-possession lead after scoring 28 unanswered points!

The highlight of the third quarter mayhem came when Jared McGee returned a forced fumble 82 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. That was when the momentum really shifted in favor of the Wildcats.

Turnovers, Turnovers, and More Turnovers

The Utah Utes finished the night with six turnovers! Yes, you are reading that correctly. Five of the six turnovers came in the second half. And they started the turnover parade on the first drive of the second half after Jason Shelley threw an interception to Blake Gallagher. Jason Shelley had one of the worst halves of his football career (two interceptions, one fumble), but in no way should he shoulder all the blame. Jaylen Dixon was stripped twice during the game – both strip fumbles recovered by Northwestern. The Utes lacked discipline in the rainy second half.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham commented on his team’s third quarter struggles after the game: “I’ve been coaching a long time and I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of third quarter like that … We had complete control of the game at halftime and we came out in second half and proceeded to turn the ball over five times. … You turn the ball over like that and you win almost never.”

In Utah’s defense, they were playing without key starters for the entire game. Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, Britain Covey, and Chase Hansen were all on the sideline during Monday’s Holiday Bowl loss. When a team is missing their starting quarterback, leading rusher, leading receiver, and leading tackler on defense, that is a recipe for disaster. Throw in six total turnovers and you have a guaranteed loss on your plate.


Utah blew it. But looking ahead to next year, the Utes and Kyle Whittingham have much for which to be excited. Huntley, Moss and Covey are all back, and the defense should continue to be a dominant force in the competitive Pac-12.

The night, and the 2018 Holiday Bowl, go to the Wildcats! Kudos to Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats for not giving up after their abysmal first half. The Wildcat seniors leave the program with 36 wins over their four seasons. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson is leaving the program as Northwestern’s all-time winningest quarterback. Fitzgerald and this group of seniors have definitely set a new standard in Evanston.