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McGee, Pace find joy in helping defense beat back adversity against Utah

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A leader for his younger teammates, “Big Bro” played his final NU game at an unfamiliar position and helped swing the momentum irreversibly in Northwestern’s favor.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

SAN DIEGO — Jared McGee and JR Pace met at midfield, wearing the two widest smiles on the gridiron. Just behind them, nearly 100 uniformed Wildcats were getting ready to pose for a picture with the 2018 Holiday Bowl trophy after a 31-20 win over Utah. But for a moment, it was just McGee and Pace, as happy as can be.

“You the MVP?” McGee exclaimed like a proud older brother, acknowledging the trophy Pace clutched in his left hand.

The pair embraced and joined their teammates, McGee taking his place front and center.

Things didn’t look so rosy early on. Missing three senior starters, the Wildcat defense looked lost in the game’s opening minutes, allowing Utah quarterback Jason Shelley to prance around the pocket and find open receivers. Facing a 17-point halftime deficit, NU refused to panic in the locker room. The players and coaches chalked the unsavory performance up to poor execution and communication and moved on.

“We weren’t on on the same page at all in the first half,” linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “That’s that’s where all the mistakes were coming from, miscommunication and one-man break downs and we just weren’t on the same page.”

Northwestern is no stranger to adversity. But someone would have to make a play.

In several ways, 2018 has been a challenging year for McGee, who’s known as “Big Bro” to his teammates. The senior missed all of spring ball with an injury, instead spending his time learning to lead a green locker room that had just lost veterans Kyle Queiro and Godwin Igwebuike. After proving himself as an adept run-stopper during NU’s first eight games, the starting safety was injured against Notre Dame and missed the next three games.

Then, in his final game as a Wildcat, McGee had to do something he had never done in college: play linebacker. With Nate Hall out for the Holiday Bowl, McGee spent the weeks leading up to the game in a different position room.

“That was just so cool,” said Travis Whillock, who started the Holiday Bowl at safety instead of McGee. “A fifth-year guy that’s played a lot of football for us and has done a really good job — for him to be able to [switch positions], and get a touchdown.”

The touchdown. In his final game, McGee scooped up a Shelley fumble forced by Joe Gaziano and saw nothing but green in front of him.

“When I got the ball at first I was like I need to not drop this and then once I got it in my hands, I was like, I gotta go all the way ...” McGee told Inside NU after the game. “It was a long run and the whole time I was like Just make it, just make it. And I made it.”

Pace, responsible for two turnovers of his own in the third quarter, was the first guy to rush 80 yards to down the field to celebrate with McGee.

“That really is my big brother,” Pace told Inside NU. “We room together every week. I’ve learned a lot from him, playing safety and just in life. He’s a great friend of mine.”

The purple contingency in the northeast corner of the stadium went berserk. And the Wildcats finally had some momentum. And a lot of it.

“Once we got the stop and the score, it was like, ‘Here we go,’” Pat Fitzgerald said. “You could just feel momentum shift.”

NU played fast and loose on defense. The Wildcats flew to the ball. They got pressure on the quarterback. After Pace only managed 34 yards on his fumble return, he said McGee gave him crap for failing to score. As the clock bled away, the sophomore hopped on the bench and danced like no one was watching, spraying his water bottle in the air as his teammates chanted “Big Ten football.” The Wildcats were having fun, and no one was enjoying that dreary San Diego evening more than McGee and Pace.

McGee leaves Northwestern as a member of the winningest class in NU history, with 36 wins, including three bowl victories, over the past four seasons. His interception in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl helped seal an NU victory. He said Monday night’s win was better.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my career,” he told Inside NU before he disappeared into the tunnel after the game.

In the postgame press conference, the Texan imparted one more lesson to his younger teammates.

“We showed when we put a complete game together, there’s not many dudes that can play with us,” he said. “I hope these young boys that are coming back hold onto that and they get hungry in the off-season, become the play-makers that they can be.”

In the new year, the Wildcats will try to take McGee’s words — and his joy — to heart. Pace and Whillock, Big Bro’s proteges at safety, definitely will.

“I’m just so thankful for him, mentoring me the past couple years,” Whillock said. “I’m going to miss him.”

With 38 seconds to go, McGee and offensive lineman Trey Klock crept up behind Fitzgerald, a Gatorade bucket filled to the brim with ice in their arms. As Clayton Thorson took a knee, McGee and Klock dashed after their head coach before giving him one final ice shower for 2018.

One problem: The game wasn’t over yet. Northwestern had turned the ball over on downs.

No matter. McGee playfully shoved his head coach back towards the sideline. Fitz grinned and stuck his tongue out. The two shared one more smile as they retreated to the bench. Joy.