For a bowl game where the only storyline a casual observer knew was a made-up ESPN fever dream of Pat Fitzgerald going to coach the Packers, this...actually was exciting?
Not exciting in the “wire-to-wire good football” way, or even the “Washington storms back in the fourth quarter to scare Ohio State” way, though; just the typical, batshit “two mid-tier, middling-conference schools in a weird, wet bowl game” kind of exciting. To wit:
- Three defensive starters—Montre Hartage, Nate Hall, and Jordan Thompson—out, and two offensive stalwarts—Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek—leaving with injuries.
- Northwestern had more fumble return yards (82) than rushing yards (81).
- S&P+ gave the ‘Cats a postgame win expectancy of 19%.
The Utah Utes entered without quarterback Tyler Huntley, though freshman signal-caller Jason Shelley had been more than adequate as a stand-in, and Utah boasted all the things that, on paper, have been making Northwestern 6- to 7-point underdogs all season: A Top 30 defense. A coach who’s been around the block and doesn’t know how to lose. An offense with some explosive playmakers if you can juuuuust get the ball in their hands.
Oh great, another game against Iowa Hawkeyes.
It was one of our Northwestern regulars (I’ll say HistoriCat, but I’m not sure which) who opined before the Holiday Bowl that this would either be a close game ending in a Northwestern win or a blowout in which Northwestern was never competitive.
(See, the Iowa narrative fits!)
Going into the half at 20-3, with the Utes having rolled up yards and yards of offense, stymied Northwestern’s rushing attack (Isaiah Bowser never got going, with just 70 yards on 23 carries), and even the Utah punter (Mitch Wishnowsky, a Ray Guy guy if there ever was one) was embarrassing his counterpart Jake Collins.
Maybe the rain fell a little heavier over halftime—I had stormed into the basement of our friends’ house to angrily play darts while drinking whatever punch cocktail they were serving for New Year’s—or maybe Northwestern just came out and made some adjustments, in that classic Pat Fitzgeraldian way. But Blake Gallagher, another true sophomore LB on a defense slowly becoming known for quiet standout linebackers, dropped into coverage and snagged a Shelley pass.
Two Clayton Thorson passes later—a 52-yard catch-and-scamper by Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman (whose name I will conquer just like I conquered Doug Mientkiewicz and Wally Szczerbiak, both names I am now realizing that RCB, a Twin Citian just like me, is probably too young to remember and Jesus this got depressing) and a quick hitter to Riley Lees—and Northwestern started to claw its way back.
And then things got really weird.
Well not really, they traded punts, which is about as on-brand for Utah-Northwestern as you can get. But the narrative doesn’t sound quite as good this way, and you’re probably bored. I’ll move on.
As Utah mounted a drive, the ‘Cats defense did what it did most of the year—bent, but didn’t break—and wouldn’t you know it, it was Joe Gaziano, Destroyer of Worlds, who not even the rain-soaked turf could slow. Slipping but rising to his thunderous hooves, Gaziano’s right paw stripped Shelley, and Jared McGee (a safety playing linebacker, because this game was weird, remember) scooped and, well...
NORTHWESTERN!!!!! Jason Shelley gets strip-sacked, Jared McGee recovers and takes it back for an 82 yard TD pic.twitter.com/2cmb35Zpbw— #NobodyDied (@ftbeard_17) January 1, 2019
***As an aside, I didn’t care for Gus Johnson’s call of this game, and usually I’m a huge Gus Johnson bobo. He was off, and it wasn’t a good performance.
If you’re one of those people who believes a team’s spirit can be broken, that came next drive, as Shelley completed another deep crossing route to Jaylen Dixon, who had been finding space in the Northwestern zone...and then Dixon too fumbled. Northwestern ball. When all was said and done, Northwestern forced and recovered four fumbles (two each from Shelley and Dixon). It was absurd.
And then Pat Fitzgerald thought, “You know what? I’m bored. Let’s dial up some ‘beating-the-shit-out-Illinois-level’ weird play”:
Northwestern's 294-lb. offensive lineman just scored a touchdown.— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) January 1, 2019
What did you accomplish in 2018? pic.twitter.com/ucWBAEGhLX
If you want to see a player whose spirit is broken, watch Utah’s #1 (and perhaps #15) as Trey Klock rumbles like a wounded hippo who has just seen a river into which he can make his escape. #1—whose name I shan’t look up and tag to shame him, because there is no shame in not wanting to waste pregame carbo-loading throwing yourself before a train which remember, kids, needs about a mile to adequate stop, and if they can see you, it’s too late—wants nothing to do with that. Their coach has been bested. They have been broken.
The ‘Cats drove one more time, with Bowser beginning to do Bowser things as the Utes’ defense began to fold, and Lees lines up in the wildcat, takes the snap, and QB-sweeps right into the endzone. 31-20. Ballgame. ‘Cats win. Third straight bowl win. 9-5. There—is—your—dagger.
It feels fitting to return to that last bit, because Wayne Larrivee will never have the pleasure of making that call for a Pat Fitzgerald-coached Green Bay Packers team. You knew that, of course, in your heart of hearts, and most all of us knew that, because we are aware of what Northwestern University and Pat Fitzgerald mean to one another. The Mark Murphy-wanting-Fitzgerald was always a one-sided relationship, and ESPN wants your clicks and your eyeballs and hey, they’ve pivoted to video, come look! It was never happening. Fitzgerald is a Wildcat. But you knew that.
This, of course, won’t stop the paeans to Fitz—and whatever the fuck happened with pissy little InsideNU commenters arguing about Stanford—nor people nitpicking his record. It won’t stop aspiring Rovells from telling you that this was Fitzgerald’s presidential moment, his defining win, the day when Pat Fitzgerald passed from the ranks of “simply a good alumnus coaching at his alma mater” to “a lifetime coach who knew—who had the keys to the program—how to win at an academic school.”
You already knew all that. Stop letting ESPN’s made-up trade rumors and breathless coverage of NFL coaching carousel interviews dictate your life—Pat Fitzgerald was never coaching the fucking Green Bay Packers. Stop making one game—one dumb, weird, rain-soaked exhibition game—define a coach’s legacy (that extends to idiots who cared about Kyle Whittingham’s 11-1 bowl record).
Enjoy the players on the field—the Joe Gazianos, the Isaiah Bowsers, the Jared McGees; and, yes, the Clayton Thorsons. How lucky to watch them on one last ride; one last weird win during a season in which they could not win a non-conference game until the very death of the year but reeled off eight Big Ten wins and a conference championship.
Northwestern beat the team in front of them, and they did it in their own delightfully-weird way. Go ‘Cats.