At long last, bowl season has arrived. In only five days, Northwestern will look to reach the eight-win threshold as it takes on Utah from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Frankly, the fact that the Utes got to 8-4 themselves and were ranked as high as No. 10 in the AP Poll is a testament to coaching, particularly by lead man Kyle Whittingham and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. The team suffered a slew of injuries and lost a lot of talent relative to last year — mainly on offense, with Dalton Kincaid and Tavion Thomas moving on to the next level.
But, many of the key pieces that allowed Utah success in 2023 likely will not suit up against the Wildcats. As of now, 14 Utes are in the transfer portal, while other stars either are injured or have declared for the 2024 NFL Draft. One of the major quagmires of bowl predictions is that one has little idea who will actually play, so this analysis will assume that the vast majority of the players falling into those aforementioned categories will not strap up their pads in Sin City.
Consequently, what is NU getting in Utah from a personnel and structural standpoint? Take a deeper dive into all three facets of Whittingham’s squad below.
Although the Utes averaged 24.5 points per game, their offense was certainly not as cohesive as in the past. According to College Football Data, Utah had the third-worst offensive EPA/play in the PAC-12, including the fourth-worst rushing offense.
Besides the loss of Kincaid, the big reason why was injury. Star quarterback Cam Rising never played the entire year after suffering a catastrophic knee injury in the 2023 Rose Bowl, making quarterback somewhat of a revolving door.
QB Bryson Barnes
Ultimately, junior Barnes took the reins of the starting job under center. Across 10 games, Barnes completed 58.5% of his passes for 12 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 123.6 rating. Pro Football Focus awarded him a 66.3 passing grade, which was eighth in the PAC-12 among quarterbacks with a minimum of 250 dropbacks. Intriguingly enough, Barnes is actively in the transfer portal but will still start for Utah.
In terms of his throwing skill, Barnes actually has several similarities to Ben Bryant. The junior has a relatively solid arm and generally displays solid pocket movement, often trying to reset and extend plays — which can be a double-edged sword. This touchdown strike was strong work to step up between the tackles.
Moreover, Barnes has the ability to stand tall and throw despite taking shots. His physical frame (more on that in a second) can prove to be an asset in parrying contact.
At 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, Barnes is a very willing and even physical runner, though he’s not incredibly quick or elusive. Utah OC Andy Ludwig regularly implements Barnes’ legs, whether through options or draws. Further, Barnes isn’t afraid to take off and scamper if he doesn’t like what he sees in terms of coverage.
Barnes’ biggest downfall is probably a bit of recklessness with the football. He can sometimes telegraph throws and/or not understand defenders’ positioning. Other times, Barnes can want to create late in a play, but that desperation can lead to takeaways. His 12 turnover-worthy plays were fifth among those previously described 11 PAC-12 QBs.
Varied Run Game
Initial Utah starting RB Micah Bernard — who posted 533 yards on five yards per carry last year — suffered what was thought to be a season-ending injury in the team’s opener against Florida. However, the expectation is that Bernard will return to action in Las Vegas, which muddies things for Northwestern’s defense. The Wildcats must have sound tackling form on Bernard, who boasts good contact balance.
In Bernard’s stead, the Utes turned two a three-pronged attack, with Ja’Quinden Jackson the lead horse. At 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, Jackson excels at getting downhill and by using his power to take on contact. Utah frequently ran him between the tackles, especially in the A or B gaps. Altogether, Jackson totaled 742 yards and four scores.
Additionally, Utah handed off to Jaylon Glover 121 times (as opposed to Jackson’s 153 carries). The 5-foot-8 Glover is certainly smaller in stature than Jackson, but also considerably more elusive and quick. His ability to get east/west and juke out a defender is something David Braun’s defense will have to key in on.
The elephant in the room for Ludwig in the pass and run game will be the absence of two-way stud Sione Vaki, who amassed 520 scrimmage yards and a gaudy 9.8 yards/touch. Vaki declared for the 2024 Draft, and his presence as a runner, route runner and overall big playmaker will certainly alter Utah’s gameplan.
New-Look Receiver Room
The concept of changes has also afflicted the Utes’ receiver corps after the draft declaration of Devaughn Vele, who posted 593 yards and a ludicrous 13.8 yards per catch. Moreover, third option Mikey Matthews entered the portal.
That leaves Money Parks as Barnes’ presumptive top target. The 5-foot-10 junior possesses relatively top-end speed and can get behind a defense (as he did against Florida in the clip below), though 45.8% of his targets came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, per PFF. Parks had just 289 yards, in part because of an 11.8% drop percentage.
Other options to monitor in terms of pass-catchers include Munir McClain and TE Landen King. It is not expected that WR Mycah Pittman or tight ends Thomas Yassmin or Brant Kuithe, who had their seasons halted by injury, will suit up.
Other Things to Know
Even shifts have caused transition among Whittingham’s protectors. Starting right tackle Sataoa Laumea accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl, and his status for Saturday is unclear. Moreover, starting left guard Keaton Bills also declared for the draft. Utah could very well be down 2/5 of its typical OL, which surrendered 135 pressures — the fourth-most in the PAC-12.
Regarding scheme, Ludwig isn’t afraid of interspersing some trickery, whether in the form of Wildcat or even a double pass (which was often run with Vele). Beyond those wrinkles, the ‘Cats have to hone in on play action, where Barnes attempted 23.8% of his passes. Barnes’ ability to move also opens up boot action, and if the Utes can find efficiency in the run game, that makes PA that much more appealing.
Utah’s defense was largely its backbone for the 2023 season, permitting just 19.8 points per game and ranking fifth in the conference in defensive EPA/play. Scalley is one of the more unheralded assistants in the sport; his ability to develop both top-end talent (e.g., Jaylon Johnson, Devin Lloyd, Julian Blackmon, Cody Barton, Clark Phillips III) and a cohesive unit is tremendously impressive.
However, Scalley’s defense will be a bit shorthanded against Northwestern. First-Team All-PAC-12 selection Jonah Elliss, who racked up 12 sacks and 16 TFLs, suffered a season-ending injury late in the year and does not appear to be ready to go. Further, starting linebacker Lander Barton went down in October. In addition to those massive losses, the Utes won’t have both starting safeties (Vaki and Cole Bishop) plus corner JaTravis Broughton.
Who must step up for Whittingham with the top three defenders in snaps played (likely) out)? It starts with junior corner Zemaiah Vaughn, who earned a 75.9 PFF grade on the season. The 6-foot-2 Vaughn is physical in coverage and a strong tackler in the open field, though his three penalties were tied for the most on Utah’s defense.
In the middle of that unit, linebackers Karene Reid and Levani Damuni will need to carry the freight. Reid earned a Second Team All-PAC-12 nomination after posting 59 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, an interception, a touchdown and four pass deflections, while Damuni paced the Utes with 75 tackles and 33 stops. Reid missed an absurdly low 1.5% of his tackles all season, which was the lowest among linebackers in the nation (min. 500 snaps).
Even without their superstar edge rusher, the Utes still have solid players in Connor O’Toole and Van Fillinger, both of whom notched at least 19 pressures and 12 stops. Each carries strong motors and the ability to punch out the football, something that Ben Bryant and NU’s offensive players should be wary of.
In the back end, look for safety Nate Ritchie to see increased playing time sans Vaki and Bishop. Ritchie has played only 154 snaps in 2023 — after not seeing the field since 2020 due to a mission — but was a four-star prospect and has good size at 6-foot-2.
Structurally, Utah tends to run a 4-2-5 while dropping a safety into the box, something with which is something Wildcat fans are familiar. Frequent coverages include Cover 2 and 6, which can leave the middle of the field beyond hook zones vulnerable. Colorado took advantage of that in the Utes’ final game of the regular season, with star Travis Hunter finding the end zone on a dig.
Scalley isn’t afraid to be aggressive, either. Utah can turn to well-timed blitzes, particularly up the middle through its middle linebackers. Offensive communication, especially in terms of hot routes, will be critical on such plays.
Utah also hangs its hat on very sound tackling. The Utes had just 90 misses all season, which was the second-fewest in the PAC-12. It’s not uncommon to see multiple players rally to the ball, which is the hallmark of a good defense.
Yet, for as well as Utah’s defense generally performed this year, there were definitely lapses against teams with potent offenses like Washington, Oregon and USC. The Utes did surrender chunk runs at times due to poor angles and/or not shedding blocks well, and also got gashed through the air on occasion with poor coverage or bad adjustments to the ball.
A key stat to know: when Utah allowed more than 17 points, the team went just 1-4. That might be the target number for the Wildcats if they want to prevail.
I’d be remiss if this thorough of a breakdown didn’t include specialists, after all.
Utah kicker Cole Becker had a phenomenal season, converting all 27 of his extra points and going 15-for-18 on field goals. Interestingly enough, two of his three misses were from 37 yards or shorter. Further, Becker made three of four kicks from 40+, including one from 51 against the Gators.
Punter Jack Bouwmeester was also outstanding, netting First Team All-PAC-12 after averaging 46 yards per punt. The sophomore from Bendigo, Australia was a Ray Guy Award semifinalist, in part because he had 17 punts of 50+ yards. Take a look at his unreal showing against Florida, which featured a 64 (!)-yard punt; Bouwmeester could be a major asset in terms of field position.
Finally, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Whittingham’s team is highly disciplined. The Utes averaged 42.6 penalty yards per game, which was the lowest mark in the PAC-12 and 22nd nationally. For context, Northwestern was 30th.