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Three matchups to watch ahead of Northwestern vs. Utah

The ‘Cats look to build on a fabulous season with a bowl win.

Northwestern Athletics

Coming off a win against Illinois to close the regular season, Northwestern has had some time to rest and reset before their battle against Utah. The Utes have lost two of their last three games; however, the games were against Washington and Arizona. Washington is currently ranked second, and Arizona is 14th in the country. Northwestern will look to win their first bowl game since 2021 and cap off a remarkable 2023.

Northwestern’s third down offense vs. Utah’s defense

This year, Northwestern is ranked 52nd in the country, converting 41.4% of its third downs. While this is a solid rate, the ‘Cats will be tested against Utah. The Utes are the eighth best defensive team in the country on third down. They have allowed opposing teams to convert 28.9% of the time. It will be important for Northwestern to sustain drives.

However, Utah might be shorthanded in the secondary against the ‘Cats. Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki declared for the NFL Draft. Bishop finished second on the team with 60 tackles and is ranked as the seventh-best safety on Mel Kiper’s big board. He has also added three sacks and two interceptions this year. Alongside Bishop, Vaki is also a great player for Utah. He’s mainly a safety but has contributed on the other side of the ball as a running back. As a safety, Vaki is fourth on the team with 50 tackles and has two sacks this year. Utah has a great third-down defense, but if Bishop and Vaki don’t play, third-down will be a much easier task for Northwestern.

Northwestern’s depth vs. Utah’s depth

The transfer portal will play a key role in Northwestern’s bowl game. Offensive guard Josh Priebe entered the transfer portal. He would be a major loss for Northwestern if he ends up leaving before the bowl game as he has been the team’s best offensive lineman this year. Outside of Priebe, Northwestern has only had three others enter the portal, none who are crucial to the team this year.

On the other hand, Utah has seen a mass exodus since the end of the regular season. It had three key players declare for the NFL draft (Devaughn Vele, Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki), and 13 players have entered the transfer portal. Of those players, many of them have played large roles this season. Last year’s starting quarterback Cam Rising has been out for the year, and this year’s starter Bryson Barnes is in the portal; however, he will play against the ‘Cats. The backup to Barnes is quarterback Nate Johnson, who is also transferring.

JaTravis Broughton, a cornerstone in the secondary for five years, and first-year Mikey Matthews are in the portal. Matthews was a four-star wide receiver out of California and has been an important pass catcher this year, finishing third on the team in receiving yards. With the Utes having loads of talent either declaring for the draft or in the transfer portal, it is likely that the Wildcats will not see them across the line of scrimmage in Las Vegas.

Northwestern’s linebackers vs. Ja’Quinden Jackson and Bryson Barnes

Ja’Quinden Jackson leads Utah with 742 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns this season. Although Jackson was a quarterback last year, he has been a full-time running back this year and has been the bell-cow for the Utes, averaging a solid 4.8 yards per carry on the year. He has hit triple digits in three games in 2023, highlighted by a 129-yard game against Baylor. While he can move the ball on the ground, Jackson only has nine catches for 53 yards this season, so the ‘Cats won't need to worry about him in the passing attack.

Quarterback Bryson Barnes is also a rushing weapon for the Utes. He is Utah’s third-leading rusher this season with 267 yards. In his last game against Arizona, Barnes took off 19 times, displaying his ability to churn out yards with his legs. His best rushing game of the season was against USC where he had 10 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown. While Barnes has only rushed for 3.6 yards per carry, sacks contribute to rushing yards in college. Barnes is a better ball carrier than his stats show, and Northwestern will have to do their best to contain him.

Even though Northwestern will have a tough task in limiting the running game, the linebacker position is one of the strengths of the team. Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller both were named to the All-Big Ten team with Gallagher leading the team in tackles with 110 and Mueller not far behind at 102 - that’s good for 22nd and 38th in the country respectively. Add in the depth of Kenny Soares Jr., and NU has a ferocious three-headed monster in the run game. For the ‘Cats to be successful in their bowl game, Northwestern’s linebackers will have to keep up their good play.