Different team, same theme: Much like Utah, Northwestern almost got to the Rose Bowl with its defense

Utes and Wildcats will meet in the Holiday Bowl after losing in the Pac-12 and Big Ten title games.

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy) Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins (2) catches a touchdown pass as Northwestern's Nate Hall (32) defends during the second half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Indianapolis. Ohio State won 45-24.

Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald starred as a college linebacker and has coached an overachieving football program for 13 seasons. The Wildcats were disappointed to miss the Rose Bowl after winning their first Big Ten West title, but are happy about playing in the Holiday Bowl. Northwestern overcame a rough September by winning seven of its last nine games and will bring a tough defense to San Diego, while hoping the offense can generate some points.

Any of this stuff sound familiar?

Utah’s opponent in the Dec. 31 Holiday Bowl produced a season that matched the Utes' pattern to an almost eerie degree, right down to the teams' having the same bye week. Northwestern (8-5) and Utah (9-4) have played 10 straight weeks since then, while losing only once each since September, prior to last weekend’s conference championship games.

Those endings were not satisfying, considering the opportunity that awaited each team. “I dreamed about having a rose in my mouth, running around the field,” Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson told the Chicago Tribune after Saturday’s 45-24 loss to Ohio State.

The Utes also would love to have posed for the standard photos of Rose Bowl qualifiers, as Washington quarterback Jake Browning did after a 10-3 win over Utah in the Pac-12 title game.

Utah vs. Northwestern

Dec. 31, 5 p.m. MST.

TV: FS1.

Ute receiver Demari Simpkins watched the telecast of the Big Ten matchup and other championship games Saturday– without knowing Northwestern would become his team’s bowl opponent, and wishing his offense could have done more Friday. “Just taking it all in, watching other teams play well … just seeing all those other offenses out there blossoming and doing way better than what we did just hurt a little bit,” Simpkins said Sunday.

Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson and quarterback Jason Shelley tweeted that the Utes and their fans should move on from the disappointment of Friday’s ending, a no-call of pass interference on Shelley’s fourth-down pass intended for Siaosi Mariner.

The Wildcats' offense actually played better than usual Saturday, but their proud defense couldn’t stop Ohio State. That also was the case in September, when Northwestern lost 39-34 to Akron of the Mid-American Conference, a week after Utah struggled to beat the MAC’s Northern Illinois. Otherwise, Northwestern’s season has been a lot like Utah’s.

Going into the Big Ten title game, Fitzgerald was proud of how his team “overcame a lot of early season adversity” and spoke of how winning the division championship was important for the program “to get over that hurdle.”

Northwestern stood 1-3 after a tough loss to Michigan to start Big Ten play. The Wildcats won their remaining eight conference games, mixed in with a 31-21 loss to College Football Playoff contestant Notre Dame.

The Wildcats have done it with defense. Three defensive players were among the coaches' All-Big Ten selections in the 14-team league: linebacker Paddy Fisher (first team), lineman Joe Gaziano (second team) and cornerback Montre Hartage (third team). Only one offensive player was honored, with tackle Rashawn Slater making the third team, after the Wildcats averaged 344.4 yards and 24.7 points in conference games to rank in the Big Ten's lower tier statistically.

The biggest differences between Northwestern and Utah are quarterbacking experience currently and bowl performance historically. Thorson, a fifth-year senior, will be making his 53rd career start in the Holiday Bowl. He recovered from knee surgery in January, having been injured after catching a pass on a trick play in the Music City Bowl vs. Kentucky. Thorson has completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 2,675 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.

Shelley is expected to start for a fifth game as a redshirt freshman, although former starter Tyler Huntley may be healthy and available to play, coach Kyle Whittingham said last week.

Starting with the 1996 Rose Bowl, with Fitzgerald as a key player, Northwestern lost nine straight bowl games through 2011. The Wildcats have gone 3-1 since then, including wins over Pittsburgh in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl and Kentucky last December.

Whittingham, who played in the first four Holiday Bowls (1978-81) as a BYU fullback and linebacker, is 11-1 as head coach in bowls, including 5-0 in Utah’s Pac-12 era.


Northwestern 31, Purdue 27

Duke 21, Northwestern 7

Akron 39, Northwestern 34

Michigan 20, Northwestern 17

Northwestern 27, Michigan State 19

Northwestern 34, Nebraska 31 (OT)

Northwestern 18, Rutgers 15

Northwestern 31, Wisconsin 17

Notre Dame 31, Northwestern 21

Northwestern 14, Iowa 10

Northwestern 24, Minnesota 14

Northwestern 24, Illinois 16

Ohio State 45, Northwestern 24