SAN DIEGO — Northwestern didn’t initially look ready to play, and then it did — then it really did.
Then the No. 22 Wildcats (9-5, 8-1 Big Ten) won the game, defeating No. 17 Utah (9-5, 6-3 Pac-12) 31-20 in the Holiday Bowl, erasing a 17-point halftime deficit with a tidal wave of a third quarter in which the Big Ten West champs outscored the Utes 28-0 and forced four turnovers. Northwestern’s defense was stellar in this one, forcing six total turnovers and notching seven tackles for loss without several key contributors.
Clayton Thorson, who went 21-of-30 for 241 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, broke Brett Basanez’s 13-year passing record on a 24-yard pass to Berkeley Holman in the second quarter, before leaving the game after an awkward slide in the fourth quarter. Thorson’s career passing total of 10,490 yards now stands as the most in program history.
Thorson reportedly got cleared to return to the game in the fourth quarter, but Pat Fitzgerald held the senior QB out until Northwestern’s final offensive play, where he took a knee to seal the win in his final game in Northwestern uniform.
Playing for the first time in 30 days, the Wildcats looked inept offensively throughout the first half, and Utah took advantage. Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel both left the game with injures in the first half, which hamstrung a Northwestern offense that struggled to string first downs together for the majority of the first 30 minutes.
With things beginning to spiral downward in the second quarter, Clayton Thorson then got things moving a bit for Northwestern. A few bigger passes got NU inside the Utah five yard line, but the drive stalled out there, and Charlie Kuhbander knocked in a field goal to make the score 14-3.
Utah tacked on another field goal at the end of the half after Thorson got picked off on a deflected pass in the middle of the field, and the Utes led 20-3 at halftime.
Then, as a steady rain fell and the two teams came out for the second half, the third quarter got drunk. And then had a few more beers after that.
On the first drive of the second half, Blake Gallagher picked off Utah quarterback Jason Shelley, on a throw that was as bad as any on the day. On the second drive of the second half, Thorson found Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for a gain of 52 yards on a catch-and-run, before finding Riley Lees for a 4-yard score to cut the Utah lead to 10.
Then, things got even crazier. After the teams traded punts, Utah drove down to the Northwestern 6-yard line, when Joe Gaziano sacked and stripped Shelley on a scramble, and Jared McGee picked up the ball at the 18 and galloped 82 yards for a touchdown — the longest defensive score in the history of the Holiday Bowl.
But wait, there’s more!
With the score 20-17, Trae Williams forced a Jaylen Dixon fumble on the ensuing Utah possession, and JR Pace recovered and returned the fumble 34 yards to the Utah 31. This was the third turnover of the third quarter for Utah (more coming, don’t worry).
Isaiah Bowser, who finished with 69 rushing yards, began to get going with an 11-yard run to start the drive, before Mick McCall dialed up the most unique play of Northwestern’s season.
J.B. Butler, naturally a guard, lined up at tight end, before then splitting out as an ineligible receiver on the outside. Trey Klock, a former offensive lineman at Georgia Tech who is now listed as a 296-pound superback, lined up at left tackle, before dashing upfield uncovered, catching a pass, turning upfield again and stretching across the goal line for Piesman-worthy touchdown from 20 yards out.
Northwestern’s defense continued to suffocate Utah, and Thorson and the offense got the ball back again, this time going right down the field behind 32 yards from Bowser and some nice throws from Thorson. Riley Lees capped the drive with an outside run from a Wildcat formation, giving Northwestern a 31-20 lead in the game.
After that, Northwestern forced a fourth Ute turnover of the period when Paddy Fisher tipped a pass and Pace intercepted it, which put the finishing touches on a quarter — this was a looooong third quarter — Northwestern won 28-0 to turn a 17-point deficit into an 11-point lead.
The fourth quarter was more normal, however. There were no points. Northwestern won the game. See you next year.