It was a tumultuous end to a whirlwind season, and in the end, the fault lines finally gave and the Utah Utes dropped their last game of the season to the Northwestern Wildcats, 31-20.
The Utes arrived in San Diego as the seven-point favorite against a Wildcat team with a head coach who has been in conversation to jump to the NFL. Northwestern, while resilient, had had troubles down the stretch with tougher defenses, and point getting was not part of the gameplan. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald came into the weekend with questions as to his tenure with the Wildcats. With nine NFL teams firing their head coach on the infamous “Black Monday,” the head coach was being rumored to jump to the Green Bay Packers, who fired their head coach earlier this season. With this uncertainty and starting as a seven-point underdog, the true mettle of the Wildcats would be tested against a Utah squad looking to redeem themselves.
The game started with an uncharacteristically fast Utah start. After trading punts on the first three possessions, the Utes put together a nice drive and moved down the field. The run game was ineffective for both teams, and a lot of chunk yardage was happening through the air. Jason Shelley would drive that home when he tossed up a dime to Jaylon Dixon, who was facing a much heavier workload in lieu of the loss of Britain Covey in the Pac-12 Championship game. After the Utes scored twice unanswered, then tacking on two field goals to boot, they headed into halftime with not a whole lot to adjust, and consistency would carry the Utes on to victory.
The first crack in the Ute wall came when, early on in the third quarter, Jason Shelley slipped, under-throwing a receiver by a country mile, handing the ball over to Northwestern with a good field position to start the second half. They’d score two plays later, and stop the bleeding let on in the first half. The real momentum killer came when Utah fumbled on consecutive possessions, one going all the way back for a fumble-recovery touchdown by Northwestern’s Jared McGee. The Wildcats had pulled within a score of tying the game and taken the wind out of Utah’s sails, but the swing wasn’t done yet. Utah punted, threw another interception, and punted again, all while letting Northwestern run free and score 28 unanswered points to storm out in front. By the time that the last of six turnovers occurred, the game was all but over.
“Can’t win turning the ball over six times,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
In an analysis, the Utes played relatively fine football, turnovers aside. Shelley had 302 yards and two scores, and the defense was making plays, despite not forcing many turnovers. The lone Northwestern turnover was a fantastic play by Utah corner Marquis Blair, who took a bobbled pass right out of a Wildcat receiver’s hands.
While the Utes have dropped their last two, there are some upsides to the season on the whole. The Utes proved that they could take on the very best in the conference, and cemented themselves as championship contenders for years to come. The Utes performed well in the latter half of the season without much of their playmakers — they were without Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, Britain Covey and Chase Hansen, and would still have had a fighting chance were it not for the sloppy turnovers. The depth on both sides of the ball was evident throughout the season, and that depth at key positions is what will keep Utah in the hunt for the next few years.
Now that the season is over, the team looks to fill spots left by departing seniors, as well as coaches who have taken jobs with other universities, including D-line coach Gary Anderson, who departed to coach Utah State, and Troy Taylor, an offensive coordinator who is taking his talents to Sacramento State.