SAN DIEGO — Utah’s third quarter told the story of Monday’s 31-20 loss to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.
The Utes squandered a 20-3 halftime lead with two fumbles, two interceptions and a pair of punts in the 15 minutes that followed. Drives in the fourth quarter ended with a punt, a loss on downs, a fumble and the end of the game.
By then, the damage was done. Northwestern scored touchdowns on four of its first five drives in the second half to seize control. The first three scores came after Utah miscues.
“That’s why you’ve got to play 60 minutes,” said Utah quarterback Jason Shelley. “We had a good 30, first 30, then a very sloppy 30 in the second half.”
The first 15 in the second half, obviously, proved to be especially painful. Linebacker Francis Bernard noted that it was a game of momentum, and things shifted with the takeaways.
“It kind of killed our morale,” Bernard said. “That’s the way the game goes sometimes.”
Utah’s first bowl loss since 2010, though, may have been one for the books. The wild third quarter, as a whole, was something head coach Kyle Whittingham insists he hasn’t been a part of in his lengthy coaching career.
Northwestern’s run of four touchdowns included an 82-yard fumble recovery.
“There was no real halftime adjustments, anything like that,” Whittingham explained. “We just turned the ball over five times. You cannot do that. That’s the short version of what transpired.”
Overall, the Utes lost four fumbles (including one in the first half) in the game. Shelley was intercepted twice.
“Ball security wasn’t good on our part,” Whittingham said. “Of the six, I don’t know, probably half were on us.”
The other half, he added, was the result of Northwestern’s defense doing a good job.
Whatever the case, Whittingham acknowledged that the “floodgates opened” and it was like getting buried. He also used “nightmare” and “landslide” to describe what happened.
The setback ended Utah’s season at 9-5. It also snapped a five-game bowl win streak by the Utes. Whittingham’s record in bowl games dropped to 11-2.
“I guess nothing lasts forever. We’ve had a terrific run the last 15 years in bowl play. Just didn’t get it done this year,” Whittingham said. “I think the important thing here is understand that you judge the season, again, in its entirety. You don’t judge it in segments.”32 comments on this story
The 17th-ranked Utes did, after all, make team history by winning an outright Pac-12 South title for the first time. They dropped a 10-3 decision to Washington in the conference championship game — leaving them just shy of an invitation to the Rose Bowl.
“Without question, this was a big step forward for our program this year. As disappointing as this game was tonight, when you look at the body of work, we took a big step forward,” Whittingham said. “We can line up and play with anybody in the Pac-12. Took us eight years to get to this point.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was complimentary as well. He congratulated the Utes in his postgame remarks.
“We tip our hat to you guys,” he said. “What a great season for them.”