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That was Unexpected: CFB goes to the Holiday Bowl

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Hello everyone,,

Predictability in sports is boring. We might have expectations for our own team, whether it's having a winning season or winning a championship. We might think we want our expectations to be reality, but honestly, we don't. Sports are so much more exciting when the unexpected happens. That's why we have round-the-clock news cycles and talking heads trying to explain or predict what is or will happen and Twitter to keep track of the latest drama. If our expectations are ever in danger of being met, we immediately move the goalposts to make our expectations unattainable again. Contentment and predictability are the enemies of exciting sports.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is weather. Nobody likes unexpected weather, especially when sports are involved. We want to know what's going to happen so we can plan for it and be appropriately prepared. Being caught in the wrong conditions in the wrong clothes isn't just uncomfortable, it can be dangerous. That’s also why we monitor weather 24/7 and have a dedicated segment on the local news to tell you exactly what's going to happen, so you aren't caught unaware.

The 2018 Holiday Bowl between the University of Utah Utes and the Northwestern University Wildcats turned out to be anything but expected in both the game and the weather. Nobody thinks about bringing cold-weather clothes and planning for rain when they go to San Diego, and it's fairly safe to say that nobody expected Utah to blow a 20-3 halftime lead against Northwestern either.

Let's back up a bit. The 2018 Holiday Bowl was slated to be played between Utah and Northwestern on New Year's Eve in sunny San Diego. The scene was excellent and conditions looked idea; plenty of fans of both teams went down early to enjoy some holiday time and New Year's in Southern California. People played on the beaches, went sightseeing, and generally enjoyed all the reasons people go to San Diego in December. The teams arrived several days early and took in some of the sights as well, visiting the USS Midway, the San Diego Zoo, and SeaWorld in-between practices.

The game was rightfully billed as a matchup between two teams who could very well be schematic and mental mirror images:

  • Both have very long-tenured coaches (3rd and 6th respectively among all FBS coaches).

  • Both traditionally characterized by strong defenses and often mediocre offenses.

  • Both unexpectedly won their divisions in down years.

  • Both came runner-up in their conference (and thereby making this a 'Rose Bowl lite')

The teams' coaches - Kyle Whittingham for Utah and Pat Fitzgerald for Northwestern - were also quick to point out other similarities between themselves and their teams. In the pre-game press conference, both said they were very proud of their graduation rates (Northwestern is #1 in FBS graduation success rate, Utah is #5) and that they had overcome early-season adversity to reach their conference championship games. They also both were quick to praise the new redshirt rule, noted that they were both Under Armour schools, noted their exceptional bowl records... one could be forgiven for wondering if they weren't long lost twins. Because the two schools were in many ways a mirror image of each other, it was widely projected that the game would be a low scoring game, punctuated by defense.

Most analysts expected Utah to win because they had significant statistical advantages in most aspects of their game but, looking back, there were signs that things were going to go off script. It started in the days leading up to the game: the weather – instead its normal sunny disposition – started to turn cold with looming rain. San Diego locals had already pulled out their hats and beanies, something that both visiting fanbases largely chuckled at after traveling from colder locales for the game. The morning of, the Holiday Bowl parade was surprisingly chilly with clouds and light fog obscuring the views of the ocean. It drizzled on and off throughout the afternoon, with stronger storms threatening to soak the out-of-town fans expecting San Diego’s typically unvarying weather.

The game started out largely as scripted, with the teams trading punts on their first series. Utah struck the first blow and jumped out early, but partway through the first quarter the rain started to fall. The more it rained the more Utah’s offense seemed to slow. While the score after the first quarter was 14-0, the half ended at only 20-3 in favor of the Utes.

Even with a slowing offense, the script still looked well set for another Utah bowl victory. Although Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson broke his school’s all-time passing record in the second quarter, the Wildcats did not look like they had an answer for the Utes’ stingy defense. But even while Utah went to the locker room with plenty of confidence, Northwestern did not panic.

As any veteran fan of college football will tell you, these games never go according to script. Whether it was the rain, freshman inexperience for Utah's playmakers, Northwestern's adjustments, or some of those and other factors, Utah completely imploded in the third quarter and the Wildcats readily took advantage. Four turnovers and two punts by Utah within the third quarter turned into four Northwestern touchdowns and a 31-20 Wildcat lead. It was almost as if the two teams had swapped jerseys. The Utes, whose first half was as competent as Northwestern's was mediocre, suddenly found the script reversed as the Wildcats began to blast away at their lead.

After the huge swing in the third quarter the game settled into what many predicted it would be. A defensive struggle ensued and neither team scored again. Utah’s last gasp ended in a yet another fumble, and Northwestern’s final series was in victory formation, forcing Utah 

to use its time outs and leaving the Utes too little time to attempt any meaningful snaps.

As Northwestern celebrated on the field and the rain cleared up, it felt somehow fitting that the game played out as it did. The expectations that both teams’ play would mirror each other didn’t unfold as was predicted, but the theme of similarities between Utah and Northwestern still felt satisfied. The gameplay of both teams reflected the various high and low points of their respective seasons. Both finished with a 9-5 record. Northwestern continued its recent bowl streak, and while Utah lost its own streak, Kyle Whittingham still owns the best bowl win percentage of any active FBS coach who has coached 10 or more bowls......

Edited by Sarfarosh

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