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Throwback Thursday: Northwestern football beats Utah in the 2018 Holiday Bowl

The Wildcats have already shown they can beat the Utes in a postseason setting.

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

Northwestern is taking on Utah in this year’s SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 23, but before we preview that game, it’s fitting that we go back to the last time the Wildcats faced the Utes at the 2018 Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

How Utah Got There

2018 was a successful year for both teams. For Kyle Whittingham’s squad, the team’s six conference wins were enough to give the 17th-ranked team a berth in that year’s PAC-12 Championship Game in a rematch from earlier in the season against No. 11 Washington.

However, Utah couldn’t avenge its 21-7 September home loss to the Huskies, this time seeing its offense go stagnant in a 10-3 loss. The Utes stayed ranked at No. 17, and were invited to play in the Holiday Bowl.

How Northwestern Got There

Coming off a 10-3 season in 2017 in which the Wildcats finished second in the Big Ten West, Northwestern found itself overcoming a three-game losing streak to end up finishing the regular season with an 8-4 overall record, but an 8-1 conference mark. That was good enough to earn them a trip to Indianapolis to face off against Ohio State in the 2018 Big Ten Championship.

However, like Utah, Northwestern couldn’t earn a Rose Bowl invitation with a win over its conference opponent, falling to Ohio State 45-24.

The 2018 Holiday Bowl

Heading into the game, Utah was favored in the contest by seven points. However a cold, hard rain in a usually pleasant (if not warm) San Diego might have given the announced audience of 47,007 and the teams a feeling that this wouldn’t be a simple football game.

Northwestern’s offense was ineffective in the first half. The team’s first drive did get the ball to Utah’s 38-yard line, but then the team decided to punt to down Utah at the 4-yard line. Besides that drive and an eight-play, 62-yard possession to set up a field goal score in the second quarter, the Wildcats’ offense did nothing. The team had two three-and-outs, Clayton Thorson threw an interception in the team’s territory and the ‘Cats turned the ball over after a failed fourth-and-1 conversion.

Meanwhile, Utah had early success, scoring two touchdowns in three possessions in the first quarter and then adding on two field goals before halftime. Despite a fumble on the first play of their first drive to start the second quarter, the Utes committed only two penalties and were able to head into their locker room up 20-3.

Then-Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was quoted postgame that the team “talked at halftime about, ‘Get a stop, get a score, seize momentum.’”

In the third quarter, Northwestern’s defense took Fitzgerald’s message to heart, forcing three turnovers and four total turnovers in the second half, fueling Northwestern to a 28-0 run. Blake Gallagher picked off Utah quarterback Jason Shelley on the first possession of the third quarter. Thorson would then find receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for a 52-yard completion, and later Riley Lees for a four-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 20-10.

After three-and-outs by both teams, Utah drove down to the Northwestern 6-yard line before Jared McGee recovered a Utah fumble and ran it back 82 yards for an NU touchdown, making the contest a one-score game at 20-17.

Unfortunately for the Utes, the rain must have gotten the best of them, since on the third play of the next drive, Utah fumbled again — this time recovered by JR Pace. Two plays later, Thorson found Trey Klock for a 20-yard touchdown completion to take a 24-20 lead.

Northwestern’s defense didn’t stop there, as it halted Utah’s offense to another three-and-out on its next drive. The ‘Cats went on to drive down the field, going 67 yards on six plays and scoring what would go down as the final score of the game, with a Lees eight-yard touchdown run to grow the lead to 31-20.

After NU’s touchdown drive, the Wildcats’ defense got to work again, picking off Shelley for a second time courtesy of Pace. Although Northwestern wouldn’t score for the rest of the game, its defense caused another fumble, another three-and-out, a turnover on downs and held the Utes to 18 yards on their final drive to end the game.

Utah generated nearly 400 yards of offense, outgaining Northwestern in passing and rushing yardage, but the ‘Cats’ defense forcing six turnovers was the tale of this game.

“That was sweet because I think [the rain] played a really big factor,” Fitzgerald said. “It was raining a bit harder coming out of halftime than it was before the half, and I think that played a role in the game.”

Thorson became the program’s all-time leading passer for Northwestern with 10,731 career yards, going 21-for-30 for 241 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in this one — earning him MVP honors for the game.