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Las Vegas Bowl: Utah Football Falls to Northwestern in Defensive Battle

With the conclusion of the Las Vegas Bowl, the Utah football program will officially shed their Pac-12 association, trading it in for the Big 12 conference at the start of the 2024 season.
The+Utah+Utes+cheer+after+the+2023+Las+Vegas+Bowl+at+Allegiant+Stadium+in+Las+Vegas%2C+NV+on+Saturday%2C+Dec.+23%2C+2023.+%28Photo+by+Xiangyao+%E2%80%9CAxe%E2%80%9D+Tang+%7C+The+Daily+Utah+Chronicle%29
Xiangyao Tang
The Utah Utes cheer after the 2023 Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, NV on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023. (Photo by Xiangyao “Axe” Tang | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

The University of Utah football team (8-5, 5-4 Pac-12) faced Northwestern in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl in their last game as a member of the Pac-12. Not only was this game historic for the Utes as they look to the future, but for the rest of college football as well.

The game marks a new era in college football technology, as the Independence Bowl used coach-to-player helmet communication, and at least one other bowl game used tablets. The Las Vegas Bowl became the first major college football game to use both technologies simultaneously.

This is the first matchup between Utah and Northwestern since Dec. 31, 2018, when the Wildcats trumped the Utes 31-20 in the Holiday Bowl.

First Half

After winning the coin toss and deferring the kick, Utah’s defense got onto the field first. Missing Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki didn’t slow down Utah’s dominant defense, as the Utes got two quick sacks and forced a 3-and-out.

The offense got on the field, but Northwestern returned the favor with two sacks of their own. A short punt by Jack Bouwmeester placed the Wildcats in Utah territory. Northwestern was able to find a first down before missing a 51-yard field goal attempt.

Once again, a sack from Northwestern would end Utah’s drive. Utah couldn’t find anything on offense, with 21 yards through the first two possessions. Utah would get a defensive stop, but a 37-yard punt from Northwestern set the Utes on their own 2-yard line.

Ja’Quinden Jackson finally got Utah into positive yardage with a 25-yard rush, getting the Utes into safer field position. Jackson gave the offense momentum, but limped off the field before the end of the first quarter. An endzone shot from Bryson Barnes was intercepted to give Northwestern possession moving into the second quarter.

Another defensive stop by the Utes held the game scoreless. Barnes threw his second interception of the night on Utah’s next offensive drive. The Wildcats returned it 45 yards to the Utah 7-yard line.

Northwestern was just one yard away from scoring, but a failed trick play on fourth down held the game scoreless. Utah’s defense had a brilliant stop, but the offense continued to struggle. Utah punted out of their own endzone after their third 3-and-out of the game.

Northwestern had 3-and-out of their own, quickly giving Utah possession. Utah struggled to find yards, but a facemask penalty would give the Utes 15 extra yards. A dropped pass by Money Parks on 3rd and 10 would lead to yet another punt.

With halftime nearing, Northwestern found the first points of the game on a 12-yard pass. Utah tried to run the clock out, but punted with just over one minute left in the half. Northwestern moved down the field but missed a 40-yard field goal as time expired.

Utah went into the locker room with a 0-7 deficit, with only 59 yards in the half.

Second Half

Utah got the ball to start the half and the offensive struggles continued, gaining only six yards before punting. Another 3-and-out from the Wildcats gave Utah possession, but Jaylon Glover fumbled on the first play of the drive and Northwestern recovered it.

Northwestern punted after another 3-and-out to put Utah’s offense back on the field. Jaylon Glover fumbled on the first play of the drive, and Northwestern recovered it in Utah territory. Northwestern was unable to find a first down on the second consecutive drive, punting again.

Utah found momentum on offense with two first downs, but was unable to reach Northwestern territory before punting. Northwestern lost a yard on the next drive, punting on 4th and 11.

Utah started the drive in their best field position yet, their own 40-yard line. An 18-yard pass from Barnes to Munir McClain got the Utes into the redzone for the first time. Micah Bernard capped off the drive with a 6-yard touchdown rush to even the score at 7 apiece.

With a couple of quick throws, Northwestern moved down the field behind quarterback Ben Bryant. Bryant went down with an injury during the drive, and backup Ryan Hilinski entered the game. Incomplete passes on back-to-back plays resulted in a turnover-on-downs for the Wildcats, and Utah’s offense took the field with momentum behind them.

Utah went for it on 4th and 2 on the Northwestern 47-yard line, but couldn’t convert. Northwestern capitalized on the turnover, with a 19-yard touchdown pass to take a 14-7 lead.

In a must score situation, Utah went for it on 4th and 3, unable to convert with just under two minutes left. Utah was unable to get a defensive stop, and time expired as the Utes fell 7-14 to the Wildcats.

“I told the guys in the locker room they’ve got a lot to be proud of,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We found a way to win eight games this year in a very competitive Pac-12.”

Analysis

Needless to say, the Utes had some trouble getting the job done at Allegiant Stadium — a notion largely out of character for the team, who just took home two Pac-12 championships in the venue. The Northwestern Wildcats put up a rather unexpected fight, allowing minimal points to be scored and putting on a tough show for fans of both sides to watch.

As a whole, Northwestern overwhelmed Utah in terms of passing, claiming 226 yards against a measly 73 for the Utes. Oddly enough, Utah was the dominant team in terms of rushing yards, with 138 to the Wildcats’ 65.

Though the Utes didn’t have the game they wanted, there were still some notable moments for the team. Utah recorded an honorable third down conversion rate, converting 5 of 15, while Northwestern squeaked out a slightly better 6 of 17. The Utes also managed to control the majority of possession time, with nearly 10 minutes over the Wildcats.

The red defense also showed up defiantly, with Levani Damuni tallying 12 total tackles for the night, five solo. Zemaiah Vaughn was right behind him with eight total tackles, with five solo. 

With the conclusion of the Las Vegas Bowl, the Utah football program will officially shed their Pac-12 association, trading it in for the Big 12 conference at the start of the 2024 season. The Utes will join opponents including Baylor, BYU and Kansas among others across the nation.

“Sad,” Whittingham said of the end of the Pac-12. “Didn’t have to happen, but it did. You deal with it, you move forward and embrace the change because that’s all you can do. We’re excited about our landing spot in the Big 12 and excited about the future of that conference.”

 

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About the Contributors
Abbey Thomas, Assistant Sports Editor
Abbey Thomas started at the Daily Utah Chronicle in the fall of 2022 as a Sports Writer and is now Assistant Sports Editor for the desk. She is currently studying Cultural Anthropology with a minor in history and hopes to pursue medicine one day. Abbey is a die-hard fan of Real Salt Lake and Manchester City, and loves to travel and practice photography in her free time!
Sean Overton, Sports Editor
Sean Overton is the Editor of the Sports Desk. He is currently a senior and is majoring in Business Administration with plans to attend law school.
Mary Allen, Design Director
(she/her) Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Mary is thrilled to be here at the University of Utah studying graphic design. She feels very lucky to get to rub shoulders with the talented people that make up the team here at the Chronicle and is learning a lot from them every day. Other than making things look cute, Mary’s passions include music, pickleball, Diet Coke, wildlife protection, and the Boston Red Sox.
Xiangyao Tang, Photo Director
Axe is a photographer and the photo director of the Daily Utah Chronicle. He is from China and is a senior majoring in computer science and minoring in digital photography. Axe joined the Chronicle in August of 2021. In addition to his position at the Chrony, he is also a photo intern for University of Utah Athletics. When he's not writing code, you will find him rock climbing, camping, skiing or hiking with his camera.

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