Posted on December 22, 2023
The Pac-12 went 1-1 in the opening salvo of games after UCLA beat Boise State but California was dispatched by Texas Tech.
The Las Vegas Bowl is up next. I preview the game here and the picks of our writers and broadcasters appear at the bottom.
Utah vs Northwestern
Saturday, December 23
4:30 pm PT, ABC
Las Vegas, NV
The Big Ten program isn’t a powerhouse by any means, but the Wildcats have been trending up over the last decade.
This is Northwestern’s sixth bowl appearance since 2015, and over that stretch, the Chicago-based school has two 10-win seasons with appearances in the Holiday Bowl and Outback Bowl.
Led by senior quarterback Ben Bryant, the Wildcats have respectable victories over Maryland and Wisconsin that helped them reach bowl eligibility.
Operating a somewhat balanced offense with a 55/45 run-pass split that favors the run, Northwestern has a handful of capable options.
Senior Cam Porter is the top running back. The Ohio native leads the team with four scores on the ground and 618 yards rushing.
At receiver, the Wildcats have three primary options. Cam Johnson, Bryce Kirtz, and A.J. Henning have combined for 130 receptions, 1,678 yards receiving, and 13 touchdowns.
All of Northwestern’s major weapons on offense are expected to play in the bowl game.
But, despite the run/pass balance, the Wildcats struggle to run the ball. The team enters the Las Vegas Bowl 118th in the country in rushing yards per game (105.0). Even in the pass-happy Pac-12, those numbers are bad.
The 105.0 rushing yards per game would put Northwestern tenth in the Conference of Champions, above only the inept running offenses of Washington State and Colorado.
That’s a worrying sign for the Wildcats. If they aren’t able to move the ball on the ground, Northwestern could be forced to become one-dimensional through the air against Utah’s stout defense.
For all the lack of opt-outs and transfers on the Northwestern sideline, the same can’t be said for the Utes. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess who plays and who doesn’t.
Quarterback Bryson Barnes has announced his intentions to enter the transfer portal along with backup Nate Johnson. Although it appears that Barnes will play in the bowl game.
At the same time, starting corner JaTravis Broughton went into the portal while starting safeties Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop are heading to the NFL.
Whittingham has never been one to tip his hand, either. Some reports out of Salt Lake City indicate that Broughton could play, and his name appears on the bowl game depth chart, which would help out Utah’s secondary.
Whoever ends up seeing the field must keep Northwestern running back Cam Porter contained. In the Wildcats’ five losses, Porter has failed to breach the 50-yard rushing mark each game and hasn’t scored a single touchdown.
Meanwhile, in the seven wins, Porter is averaging 69.5 yards per game and has five touchdowns.
In other words, the Northwestern offense opens up when the ground game is working.
Even with numerous expected opt-outs and unavailable players due to the portal, Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley should have the personnel to contain the Wildcats on the ground.
The Utes enter the game with the nation’s No. 4 rushing defense and only allow 84.2 yards per game.
Scalley should have the depth up front and at linebacker to overcome any player unavailability issues that may arise.
On offense, Barnes has one final opportunity to cement his legacy. It’s been an up-and-down career for the former pig farmer. But the Wildcats have a poor run defense (No. 81 nationally) that could play into Utah’s hands.
The Utes have the No. 2 rushing offense in the Pac-12 (26th nationally) and should take advantage. Barnes himself is slippery and a willing runner, too, which should help open up Utah’s passing game.
As long as Barnes doesn’t throw any interceptions, Utah should enjoy a time-of-possession advantage and be in a strong position to outlast Northwestern down the stretch with a run-focused game plan.
Game Picks from Our Senior Writers and Broadcasters
—More from Dane Miller—
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- Dane Miller’s Week 14 Pac-12 Hoops Players of Week Votes
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- Dane Miller’s Week 13 Pac-12 Hoops Players of Week Votes
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- Dane Miller’s Pac-12 Men’s Hoops Previews for Feb. 3 & 4
- Dane Miller’s Pac-12 Men’s Hoops Previews for Feb 1
- Dane Miller’s Week 12 Pac-12 Hoops Players of Week Votes
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