The 31st Annual Las Vegas Bowl is set with a matchup between the 8-4 Utah Utes out of the (for the last time) Pac-12 and the 7-5 Northwestern Wildcats of the Big Ten. SRS Distribution will be the sponsor for the third year in a row. This matchup features two teams that will play tough defense and run the ball. The coaches present a stark defense as one is finishing his 19th season, and the other is completing his first.
- Game: SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl; Utah vs. Northwestern
- Location: Allegiant Stadium; Las Vegas, NV
- Date: Saturday, December 23, 2023
- Time: 7:30pm Eastern
- TV: ABC
Las Vegas Bowl Preview: Utah vs. Northwestern
Cats Against The World
The 2023 season began with a scandal for Northwestern. After former head coach Pat Fitzgerald was dismissed in July amid hazing allegations involving sexual and racial misconduct, the season seemed destined for disaster. Coaches and players continued to support Fitzgerald, the team’s all-time winningest coach, with t-shirts designed with his number 51 and the phrase “Cats Against The World.” David Braun came in as defensive coordinator for the Wildcats just seven months before Fitzgerald was fired. Still, he received the interim tag and led the team through the season. Braun later had the interim title removed and officially became the 30th head coach of the Wildcats. He proceeded to lead them far beyond expectations, finishing second in the Big Ten West and earning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
Quarterback Ben Bryant fought through injury this year, appearing in eight games along the way. He threw for over 1500 yards and found the end zone 11 times with only six picks. In relief, Brendan Sullivan, who is the more effective runner of the two QBs, threw for over 700 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions over eight games. The Wildcats don’t score a ton of points, averaging just under 23 per game. The offensive attack is run-heavy but will take chunks through the air when available. Defensively, Northwestern is giving up nearly 160 yards per game on the ground. This is an area that Utah will undoubtedly look to exploit. A veteran offensive guard will be missing, as Josh Priebe, who has started 29 games, hit the transfer portal. His absence could negatively impact Northwestern’s ability to run.
The Wildcats’ defense is just outside of the top 50 nationally in points allowed, but at 23.8, they still give up more than they score, on average. Throughout the season, they averaged roughly 300 yards of offense and gave up roughly 350 yards. Those 50 yards of difference are in rushing yards allowed. That is a major key to the game.
“Down Year” for the Utes
Utah has risen to the level of calling 8-4 a down year. Kyle Whittingham has been the head coach for nearly 20 years and built the Utes into a consistent threat. They have only been below .500 twice since Whittingham took over in 2005. After back-to-back ten-win seasons and consecutive Pac-12 titles, Utah shuffled through 2023 without star quarterback Cam Rising, who has pledged to return in 2024. After hearing the news of Rising’s return, three Utes quarterbacks announced that they will enter the transfer portal, including Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson, both of whom played significant snaps this season. Luckily for Utah, Barnes, who threw for over 1500 yards, 12 touchdowns, and nine picks, will stick around for the Las Vegas Bowl.
Barnes and Johnson were fourth and fifth on the team in rushing this season, respectively. So, expect Barnes to run it often. His touchdown to interception ratio is not great. If Northwestern can fluster Barnes, he might just throw them the ball. Utah’s path to success is on defense. Barnes and the offense average 24.5 points per game, but a top-25 defense for Whittingham’s Utes gives up less than 20 points per contest. Digging into the numbers further shows that Utah allows less than 85 yards per game on the ground. This matchup does not bode well for the Northwestern ground game. If the Utah defense can keep the opposing offense from moving the ball, it allows Whittingham’s offense to be run-heavy. When Utah attempts less than 30 passes, they win.
Utah is a touchdown favorite against Northwestern in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Utes’ defense and the lack of high-powered scoring ability from the Wildcats paint the picture. The Utah secondary is a favorable matchup against the Northwestern passing attack. The Cats will need Bryant to have a good day on the ground to keep Utah off balance. The reality is that Utah beat the teams they should have beaten this season and lost to teams that outmatched them. 8-4 is exactly what their record should be without Rising. Northwestern is quite a different story. Picked last in the Big Ten during the preseason, the Cats greatly overachieved. Bowl season is chaotic. With assistant coaching moves, transfer portal activity, and opt-outs, there is no great way to predict which teams will show up.
This game is a bit different. Northwestern wants to be there. They are playing well for Braun and the name on the front of the jersey. Utah is operating with a quarterback who has already announced that he’s gone the clock hits zero in Vegas. So the game will be closer than, ironically, Vegas predicts. Utah’s talent and the veteran leadership of Coach Whittingham are too much in the end. Utah over Northwestern in the 2023 SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl.
Final Score: Utah 24 Northwestern 20