HEADLINE

Utah meets resilient Northwestern in Las Vegas Bowl

Field Level Media

December 19, 2023 at 6:14 pm.

Quarterback Bryson Barnes is set to start for Utah in Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl against Northwestern in what the program already knows will be his swan song.

Barnes announced recently he is entering the NCAA transfer portal, joining receiver Mikey Matthews and fellow QB Nate Johnson, among others.

The Utes (8-4) and Wildcats (7-5) figure to look markedly different in this postseason matchup than if they had played at any time before late November. For players, however, it’s all part of the routine.

“It’s been kind of fun, honestly, seeing people (follow) the next-man-up mentality,” Utah tight end Landen King said. “But we’ve been like that the whole season, so it’s nothing different.”

In addition to contending with players in the transfer portal, the Utes have multiple key contributors who stated their intent to enter the NFL Draft, including defensive back Cole Bishop, two-way star Sione Vaki and offensive lineman Keaton Bills.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham knows his situation is not unique.

“I’m sure every team in the country is having similar issues. … You’re just going to be (in) a different situation for your bowl game,” he said.

Boy, can Northwestern attest.

After losing 17-9 at Nebraska on Oct. 21 to fall to 3-4, the Wildcats closed the regular season with victories in four of their last five games to cap a resilient run to bowl eligibility.

A preseason hazing scandal that led to the firing of longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald seemingly left the program in disarray, to say nothing of embarrassed. But Northwestern rallied under coach David Braun, whose resurgence allowed him to shed the “interim” from his title, rolling to a six-win improvement from last season.

That’s the biggest leap among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country.

“A lesser-character team could have packed it up and said, ‘You know what? The season’s not ours.’ They could’ve found all sorts of excuses and explanations for why we’re not going to have the season we want,” Braun said. “That’s what has exceeded my expectations, is the way this group has continued to respond through adversity.”

Transfer quarterback Ben Bryant, who missed four games due to injury, has steered the offense, passing for 1,585 yards and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions.

Braun has lauded the character of Bryant while stressing the importance of valuing and emphasizing relationships with his players throughout the season.

“The thing I’ve learned about myself is I feel like I have a unique ability to laser in on what really matters and what’s important, and focus my decision-making on those things,” he said. “And at the end of the day, that’s our student-athletes. Every decision that I’ve made, I’ve tried to put them at the forefront of my thought process.”

The Wildcats enter on a four-game bowl winning streak, while Utah has lost four straight, including 31-20 to Northwestern in the 2018 Holiday Bowl.

Running the ball and stopping the run have proven keys for the Utes, who have rushed for an average of 199.8 yards per game over the past six contests.

Meanwhile, the Utes rank fourth nationally in rushing defense (84.3 yards per game) and 17th in total defense (308.6).