SAN DIEGO — Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said the second half of Monday’s 31-20 loss to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl was like a nightmare.
“One thing after another,” he said.
It all added up to a rare bowl loss for the Utes (9-5). This was their first shortcoming since the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl and just the second in 13 appearances under Whittingham.
“Football goes that way sometimes,” said linebacker Cody Barton. “We were on the short end of the stick.”
This one, though, proved to be especially painful.
“We certainly let that game get away from us,” Whittingham said.
Utah jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the opening quarter. The first score came on a 27-yard pass from Jason Shelley to Jaylen Dixon. The second followed a fourth-down stop by the defense.
On fourth-and-1 near midfield, defensive lineman John Penisini tackled Northwestern’s Isaiah Bowser for no gain, giving the Utes possession on the loss of downs. They promptly marched downfield and doubled their lead on a 4-yard scoring strike from Shelley to Jake Jackson and Matt Gay’s second PAT.
Northwestern cut into the lead with 8:42 to go in the second quarter. The Wildcats made it 14-3 on a 21-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander.
Utah matched it on the ensuing possession. Gay drilled a 32-yard field goal with just under four minutes remaining in the half, giving the Utes a 17-3 advantage.
It didn’t stay that way for long. An interception by safety Marquise Blair gave the Utes possession on the Northwestern 35. They later cashed in with a 20-yard field goal by Gay. The kick came just before the half was complete.
Leading 20-3 after two quarters of play, Utah also held big advantages in first downs (12-6) and total offense (243-126).
Turnovers — and not the flaky ones that go in the oven — turned things around in the second half. The Utes were intercepted two times and lost fumbles twice in the third period. Three of the miscues led to touchdowns by Northwestern. The Wildcats also added another score to tie a Holiday Bowl record with 28 points in a quarter.
Linebacker Blake Gallagher got things started by picking off Shelley. Two plays later, Clayton Thorson threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Riley Lees.
An exchange of punts followed before defensive end Joe Gaziano stripped the ball from Shelley and linebacker Jared McGee scooped it up and ran 82 yards for a TD.
And just like that, Utah’s lead was reduced to 20-17.
Northwestern pulled ahead after another takeaway. Cornerback Trae Williams forced a fumble after a catch by Utah receiver Jaylen Dixon. The ball was recovered by safety J.R. Pace. The Wildcats wound up taking the lead shortly thereafter — on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Thorson to Trey Klock.
Of course, I didn’t want to end this way. Emotionally I’m down. Losing sucks. It’s a bitter taste. – Utah linebacker Cody Barton
After another Utah punt, Northwestern used a 67-yard drive to cap things off on an 8-yard run by Lees and a fourth extra point by Kuhbander.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a quarter quite like that third quarter,” Whittingham said. “We had complete control of the game coming in at halftime.”
After the break, though, the Utes turned the ball over five times — upping the game total to six. Whittingham said that and an inability to run the football were the two biggest factors in the game.
“Momentum is a powerful thing and they got momentum there and it was like a landslide,” Whittingham said. “We couldn’t get it headed the other direction.”
Utah came up short despite having more yards (393-322) and first downs (19-17). Shelley completed 27 of 45 passes for 302 yards. He threw for two touchdowns and was intercepted twice.
Whittingham said the redshirt freshman looked good early.
“Jason was doing a good job, taking care of the football,” said Whittingham, who noted that the Utes did lose a fumble in the first half. “Then the second half we just, for whatever reason, weren't as sharp. That's an understatement, saying we weren't as sharp in the second half.”
Shelley, he continued, struggled at times, just like everyone else on offense. Dixon finished with a game-high nine receptions for 114 yards. Shelley was the top rusher with 39 yards on 12 carries.
“We just lacked ball security the third quarter,” Shelley said. “We had way too many turnovers. Pretty much cost us the game.”
Utah’s run of five straight bowl victories — all since joining the Pac-12 — came to an end.
“Of course, I didn't want to end this way,” said senior linebacker Cody Barton. “Emotionally I'm down. Losing sucks, it's a bitter taste.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had a different view of the outcome.
“We really talked at halftime just about going out and playing Wildcat football, fix our mistakes,” he said. “We've been here before, let's go out and get a stop, get a score, get momentum.”