The 2018 edition of the Holiday Bowl between Northwestern and Utah will go down as one of most memorable editions in the bowl game’s history. The Wildcats' thrilling, come-from-behind 31-20 win over the Utes on New Year's Eve night was just as exciting — if not more — than the high-scoring Liberty Bowl between Oklahoma State and Missouri earlier that day.
Northwestern (9-5) overcame a 17-point halftime deficit to overwhelm a shorthanded but hungry and determined Utah (9-5) team to claim its first-ever Holiday Bowl trophy (fourth straight for the Big Ten). It also marked a third straight bowl victory for head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his fourth overall in nine postseason appearances in his 13-year tenure.
The victory helped Northwestern contribute to the Big Ten's 5-4 bowl record, but more importantly, it has validated Northwestern's arrival as a legitimate football program. This is no longer an academic powerhouse trying to compete in athletics nor is it the little school that could. The Wildcats are the reigning Big Ten West Division champions, have a head coach that NFL teams with an opening want to talk to, is sending productive players to the pros on a fairly consistent basis, all while helping to maintain its academic reputation.
Before closing the book on what has been a highly successful and potentials program-changing season, here are the five biggest takeaways from the Holiday Bowl win over Utah.
1. The victory itself
Both teams were considered evenly matched to some degree heading into this game. But after the first 30 minutes, it was anything but as Utah took a 20-3 lead into the locker room. But after an interesting Twitter post by the team at the break, the Wildcats came back with a vengeance in the second half.
NU outscored the Utes 28-0 in the third quarter, with lineman Trey Klock scoring the go-ahead touchdown, and their defense did the rest from there to preserve the win. In the end the Wildcats' defense forced four turnovers, picked up three sacks, registered seven tackles for a loss, deflected four passes, scored a defensive touchdown, and held Utah to just 150 yards in the second half. This is one of the more memorable defensive performances by the Wildcats. It's something the players and coaches can build on heading into the offseason and also could help boost recruiting on that side of the ball.
2. The Wildcats have depth
Early in the game Northwestern lost its top two wide receivers, Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek, to shoulder injuries. But that opened the door for fellow wideout Riley Lees, backup running back Chad Hanaoka, as well as receivers Berkeley Holman, Kyric McGowan, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and superback Cameron Green. Together they combined for 18 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown catch (by Lees). They also had 21 different players record a tackle on defense. It proves that Northwestern has plenty of talent go around and that the “next man up” mentality is in full effect with this team.
3. Clayton Thorson
Of course, we can’t talk about this game without talking about the face of the team. In Thorson’s 53rd and final career start (a Big Ten record), he completed 21-of-30 passes for 241 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while averaging eight yards per completion. He did this without his two best receivers and despite getting sacked a couple of times in that rough first half. Thorson departs Evanston as the winningest quarterback in Northwestern history (36-17), which is no small feat considering the adversity and injuries he has had to overcome.
He is the Wildcats' all-time leading passer in terms of yards (10,731), completions (991), attempts (1,697), and touchdown passes (61). He's also second in Big Ten history in completions and fourth in yards. His 88 total touchdowns (also 27 rushing) are seventh in conference history and his 11,139 yards of total offense are good for eighth. Now Thorson shifts his attention to getting ready for the 2019 NFL Draft.
4. Pat Fitzgerald
Back in November reports had surfaced that the Green Bay Packers had “Coach Fitz” on a short list of candidates following the firing of Mike McCarthy. With Fitzgerald focused on his Wildcats, the whispers wouldn’t go away, making their rounds again in the hours prior to kickoff out in San Diego.
After the Holiday Bowl ended, Northwestern fans were fearful of the thought of Fitzgerald leaving Evanston, but he looked to put those rumors to rest, rather emphatically, during a postgame interview.
The Packers reportedly still want to try and arrange an interview with Fitzgerald, but if he's to be taken for his word, it looks as if he's staying. If that's the case that's a huge coup for Northwestern, who can turn its focus to prove to the rest of the college football world that it's no one-year wonder.
5. Making history
It's been a year of firsts for Northwestern headlined by their first-ever Big Ten West Division title and appearance in the conference championship game. The Holiday Bowl victory is the first in the team's first-ever appearance under the current Big Ten vs Pac-12 agreement. It was the Wildcats' first bowl victory in California since the 1948 Rose Bowl and a third straight bowl victory overall, another first for the program.
The outgoing senior class will depart as the winningest in Northwestern history with a 36-17 overall record and an impressive 26-9 showing in the Big Ten. This group also went 3-1 in bowl games, the only loss coming their freshman year.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.