Here’s our stock report after an exhilarating night in San Diego:
A injury-ridden defense struggled with tackling all night, but Fisher seemed determined to keep NU hanging around. He finished with 13 tackles on the night to lead the Wildcats, including two big stuffs on third and short in the first half and a tackle for loss early in the second half. Fisher also forced his fourth fumble of the season, stripping Jaylen Dixon of the ball in Ute territory. Unfortunately, NU couldn’t capitalize and went three and out. But hey, at least the Texan has two more years of eligibility.
Shaky in the first half, Thorson ended the night a winner yet again, as well as NU’s all-time leader in passing yards. When the game hung in the balance in the third quarter, Thorson was excellent, leading three touchdown drives. He finished 21-of-30 for 241 yards with two scores and a interception, without Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek for most of the game. And, most importantly, after getting shaken up on a run late in the game, Thorson returned to kneel out the clock one more time.
The game swung on four Utah turnovers, which you can read all about here. I won’t rehash it all, but both the Wildcat offense and the Wildcat defense took advantage of plenty of Utah mistakes to swing the game’s momentum. And the NU second half defense was unreal, without three key starters. Or the Utah offense was terrible.
Jared McGee and JR Pace
McGee moved up to linebacker for the Holiday Bowl, filling in for Nate Hall. He only had one tackle, but he made one of the biggest plays of the game when he scooped up a Jason Shelley fumble and rumbled 82 yards to bring NU within three points of Utah with 6:40 left in the third quarter. Pace, the defensive MVP of the game, took it from there. He picked up a fumble forced by Trae Williams and took the ball 34 yards into Utah territory. Northwestern took the lead two plays later. The sophomore picked off Shelley two possessions later to snuff out any momentum Utah may have had left. He finished with seven tackles, too, including a huge hit on Jaylen Dixon.
To paraphrase Grant Napear, the Sacramento Kings announcer, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like Northwestern football!” Big man touchdowns!
Honorable mentions: Riley Lees, Blake Gallagher, Earnest Brown IV, Northwestern Twitter when good things happen, Joe Gaziano, Pat Fitzgerald’s status as NU’s football coach, Mick McCall’s creative capacities, Akron jokes
The run offense
NU’s run attack reverted back to its pre-Rutgers form for most of Monday. NU only averaged 2.6 sack-adjusted yards per carry. Granted, the Utes feature one of the best run defenses in the country, but NU’s inability to pick up even a couple yards on first or second down early on meant the Wildcats often faced third and long, a scenario they’ve struggled in all year. The Wildcats had to pick up an average of 10.9 yards on third down, and could only convert 3-of-14 total attempts. Isaiah Bowser ended up with 70 yards on 23 carries, but he only managed 10 yards on his first eight opportunities.
The first half defense
So, about that first half. It ... wasn’t pretty. Northwestern was missing Jordan Thompson, Nate Hall, and Montre Hartage. Utah got basically whatever it wanted in the first half, scoring swiftly twice in the first quarter. Jason Shelley looked like a world-beater for much of the first half, dancing around the pocket without a care before picking apart the soft NU zone. The Wildcats couldn’t get to the quarterback nor force an incompletion.
Of course, everything changed in the second half, so it didn’t really matter.
NU’s collective health
Thompson, Hall, and Hartage all missed the game, and Northwestern’s depth was further depleted on Monday. Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek both left the game for good during the first half. Alonzo Mayo missed some time after a scary hit, and Isaiah Bowser sat out a drive or too as well. NU fans were treated to another scary moment after Clayton Thorson went down after a scramble late in the game, but he was able to return to take the final knee.
Honorable mentions: The San Diego weather/the concept of open-air press boxes, Kyle Whittingham’s bowl winning streak, Jason Shelley, dumping the Gatorade on Fitz at the correct point in time