The Utes fell to the Northwestern Wildcats 31-20 Monday night at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
It was a game best described as one of two drastically different halves.
In the first half Utah could do no wrong and ran out to a commanding 20-3 edge over the Wildcats.
Quarterback Jason Shelley looked the best he had in any start this season and wide receiver Jaylen Dixon not far behind.
The Utah defense was in Pac-12 championship game form, and that despite the absence of senior linebacker Chase Hansen.
Everything changed in the second half, however, particularly in the third quarter.
Quite simply, everything went wrong for the Utes.
Northwestern scored 28 unanswered points, buoyed by four Utah turnovers — the Utes finished the contest with six giveaways — en route to a 31-20 victory.
The quick start and subsequent second-half collapse make for odd Holiday Bowl grades, the final of the 2018-19 season.
At the outset of Monday night’s contest, Shelley looked the part of elite college football quarterback.
The redshirt freshman had performed admirably in his previous starts, after taking over for the injured Tyler Huntley, but his prior performances paled in comparison to his first-half performance against Northwestern.
Shelley was accurate with the football, decisive in his reads, and dangerous on the ground.
He connected with his former high school teammate Dixon for the game’s opening score and later found tight end Jake Jackson for another.
Shelley wasn’t alone with a strong first half performance for Utah either.
Dixon was a standout, as was freshman Solomon Enis, and a third wideout, Siaosi Mariner.
The offensive line was particularly impressive as well and managed to keep Shelley nearly untouched through the opening 28 minutes of the game.
Everything fell apart in the second half, however, through a combination of factors.
Turnovers played a significant part in the Utes collapse, as Utah turned the ball over six times. Shelley was responsible for at least two of said giveaways — he finished with two interceptions and a fumble — including an egregious interception to start the third quarter.
The four additional turnovers were fumbles, including Shelley’s which was returned by Northwestern’s Jared McGee 86 yards for a touchdown.
In addition to the turnovers, Utah’s offense was plagued by drops in the second half, as well as an inability to run the ball. Starting running back Armand Shyne finished with only 33 yards rushing, backup Devin Brumfield with 19.
For as good as the offensive line was in the first half, it was equally poor in the second half, both at run blocking and in pass protection.
All told, the first and second halves were nearly mirror images of one another, only one excellent and one abysmal.
Throughout the first half, even its entirety, Utah’s defense was as stout as it had been all season long. The Utes completely dominated Northwestern, led by the defensive front.
Powered by the likes of Leki Fotu and John Penisini, the Utes’ front four controlled the line of scrimmage and allowed linebackers Cody Barton and Francis Bernard to run wild against the Wildcats.
What little success Northwestern’s offense mustered in the first half came in the passing game, and only when they were able to get smaller, speedier receivers matched up against the aforementioned linebackers.
When they didn’t, Utah took advantage, as was the case when safety Marquise Blair recorded his second-quarter interception.
Much like the offense, the Utah defense made a complete about-face in the second half, however.
Almost from the get-go, the Wildcats found success against Utah in the third quarter, both on the ground and through the air.
The Utes front four, so strong in the first half, were pushed around in the second, which negated the effectiveness of Barton and Bernard.
Utah’s defensive backs saw their effectiveness take a dip as well, namely Julian Blackmon, Javelin Guidry and Jaylon Johnson, each of whom was beaten badly in the third.
The highlights, or rather lowlights, of a quarter that saw Northwestern scored 28 unanswered points, 21 of which came against Utah’s defense, were a receiving touchdown by an offensive lineman and a rushing touchdown out of the Wildcat formation.
Utah’s defense rebounded in the fourth, holding the Wildcats scoreless, but the deluge of points in the third quarter proved too much, despite Northwestern finishing with only 322 yards of total offense and just 81 rushing yards.
While offense and defense were hit and miss throughout the contest, Utah’s special teams were solid and steady from start to finish.
Kicker Matt Gay led the way with two field goals, including a long of 32 yards. Gay finished with eight total points, capping off a record-breaking two-year tenure up on the hill.
Senior punter and three-time Ray Guy award finalist — one-time winner — Mitch Wishnowsky was also strong, and tallied five punts for 231 yards, an average of 46.2 yards per punt.
Wishnowsky had a long of 63 yards, 16 yards longer than the best by Northwestern punter Jake Collins.
Neither the Utes nor the Wildcats did much in the return game, at the very least not in any game-altering way and special teams, on the whole, weren’t incredibly impactful on the final tally.6 comments on this story
Even still, as is so often the case, Utah earned high marks in the third phase of the game.
The Utes had hoped to use the Holiday Bowl as a memory wipe of sorts, to excise the memory of a hard-fought and disappointing Pac-12 Championship game loss to Washington.
For the first half of the New Year’s Eve showcase, it seemed as though the Utes would do just that, in dramatic fashion no less.
Instead, thanks to a horrific, turnover-plagued third quarter, the Utes end the season on a two-game losing streak, undone by mistakes in each loss.