SAN DIEGO (ABC4 Sports) – It was a tale of two halves at the Holiday Bowl.
After building a 20-3 lead at halftime, the Utes committed five of their six turnovers in the second half, and get run over by Northwestern, 31-20, ending their 5-game bowl winning streak.
Northwestern converted three Utah turnovers into 21 points in a dizzying nine-minute stretch in the pouring rain in the third quarter of the Holiday Bowl on Monday night, including Jared McGee’s 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown, to stun the No. 20 Utes 31-20 Monday night.
“We were still in the game the whole time,” said Utes quarterback Jason Shelley, who threw two interceptions and and two fumbles. “We just couldn’t capitalize off their mistakes. We just kept beating ourselves up and couldn’t get back in it.
“When you keep turning the ball over, momentum is a funny thing in football,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “Not a funny thing, but a powerful thing. They got momentum there and it was like a landslide and we couldn’t get it heading the other direction.”
The Wildcats (9-5) scored 28 points in the third quarter to win their third straight bowl game under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Green Bay Packers reportedly want to interview Fitzpatrick for their head coaching job.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson went 21 of 30 for 241 yards for 10,731 career yards, the most in school history.
Utah (9-5) cruised to a 20-3 halftime lead behind Shelley, before it all fell apart in the third quarter. Shelley had two interceptions and a fumble.
On the opening drive of the second half, Shelley threw the ball right to Northwestern’s Blake Gallagher. Thorson’s 52-yard pass to Ramaud Chiaokhio-Bowman set up his 4-yard scoring toss to Riley Lees.
The Utes had the ball first-and-goal at the 6 when Shelley rolled right, was hit from behind by Joe Gaziano and fumbled. McGee picked it up on the third bounce and ran down the sideline untouched for an 82-yard return that pulled the Wildcats to 20-17.
The Utes advanced to the 30 and looked like they had enough for a first down on a catch by Jaylen Dixon, but he was stripped by Trae Williams. JR Pacce recovered and returned it 34 yards. Two plays later, Northwestern took a 24-20 lead when Thorson threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to senior offensive lineman Trey Klock.
“We had it, and we were doing good the whole game,” said Dixon, who caught a 27-yard touchdown in the first quarter. “Then just that one play, I had the ball in my hands, and just with it being so wet and slippery out there, I’m not going to say that was the main cause, but that was for sure part of it.”
“We showed what we were like in the first half, and then in the second half, we kind of [expletive] the bed,” said senior linebacker Cody Barton. “It’s really frustrating. There’s no one to blame in the second half. It was a team loss. On defense, we weren’t creating plays and on offense they were turning the ball over. You can’t point at offense or defense, so it’s just a team loss in the second half. It’s just unfortunate.”
A steady rain fell almost the entire game, but for the most part, the Utes said it didn’t play a factor.
“Not at all,” said offensive lineman Lo Falemaka. “We’re used to this. We played in snow and a lot worse than this. So, this is not a factor at all.”
Northwestern added another touchdown in the third quarter when Lees scored from 8 yards out for a 31-20 lead.
Pace had a second interception in the third quarter, on a deflected pass.
Shelley was making his fourth start in place of Tyler Huntley, who broke his collarbone against Arizona State on Nov. 3. He resumed practicing before the bowl but Whittingham said it would have taken a miracle for him to have played. Also out were leading rusher Zack Moss, leading receiver Britain Covey and leading tackler Chase Hansen.
Shelley threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Dixon and a 4-yarder to tight end Jake Jackson, both in the first quarter.
Utah lost for the just the second time in their last 16 bowls dating to 1999. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s bowl record dropped to 11-2. He was trying to become the first to win the Holiday Bowl as a player and coach. He played in the first four Holiday Bowls with BYU, going 2-2. He was inducted into the Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame in 2009.
“It’s a shame our seniors, who accomplished so much this year, to end on a sour note like that,” Whittingham said.