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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Utah

The Wildcats arrive in Las Vegas as big underdogs. Is an upset in the cards?

Iowa v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Against all odds, the Wildcats won seven games in the regular season and now find themselves in an unexpected position: bowl season. On Saturday, Dec. 23, they will take on a familiar foe in the Las Vegas Bowl when they take on Utah. Northwestern beat the Utes a few years back in the 2018 Holiday Bowl, and now, a rematch is in order. Just as they were coming into this season, the Wildcats are underdogs once more entering this game. Here are three reasons why that shouldn’t (or should) be the case.

Why Northwestern will beat Utah

The Northwestern passing attack can stand out against a shorthanded Utah secondary

Utah is down both starting safeties after Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki both declared for the NFL draft and announced their intentions of sitting out this game. The Utes are also without starting cornerback JaTravis Broughton after he entered the transfer portal. This should open a window for Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant to continue his recent stretch of quality play.

Bryant has thrown for 1,177 yards, to go with nine touchdowns to just three interceptions in his last five starts. He also has three rushing touchdowns in that span, in which the Wildcats have won four of his last five starts. If Bryant can continue to play at this level against a depleted Utah secondary, Northwestern could surprise some folks.

Special teams

There aren’t a lot of areas where Northwestern has the edge on paper. The one exception is an area that is often overlooked, yet ultimately has a habit of showing itself in close games. The Wildcats rank 18th in the nation in special teams efficiency according to ESPN Analytics. Meanwhile, the Utes rank 84th. Behind the low ranking is a return unit that ranks 61st in average kickoff return yardage and 111th in average kickoff return yardage allowed.

Additionally, Utah ranks 105th in average punt return yardage and 78th in average punt return yardage allowed. On the Northwestern side of things, the punting unit has obviously had its fair share of struggles (more on that in a bit) but there is opportunity in the special teams phase for the Wildcats.

Momentum vs. a stoppable force

The Utes come in as losers of three of their last five, and two of their last three games. The lone victory? A six-point win at home over a hapless Colorado squad. Meanwhile, Northwestern comes in having won four of its last five, and on a three-game winning streak. It has all the momentum, whereas Utah has none. Throw in the fact that they come in as the underdog with no pressure riding on the result, and the Wildcats can come into this game carefree, a privilege that the Utes can not benefit from.

Utah has lost its last four bowl games, a streak that was started in that 2018 bowl loss to Northwestern. Meanwhile, Northwestern has won the last four bowl games they have appeared in dating back to 2016. Whether it be from this season, or bowl seasons past, the Wildcats have all the momentum, while the Utes have proven to be far from unstoppable.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Utah

The Utah rushing attack could run wild against a porous Wildcat run defense

Northwestern can’t stop the run. It hasn’t been able to do so all season and is unlikely to start now. The Wildcats rank 81st in the nation in rushing defense and just two games ago allowed Purdue to rush for over 300 yards. On the flip side, Utah sports the 26th-best rushing attack in the country and ran for a shade under 270 yards the last time they took the field.

Earlier, I mentioned this game could be a matter of Northwestern’s momentum versus the very stoppable force that is Utah during bowl season, but the same sentiment could be put forth when describing the Utes’ rushing offense going up against the Wildcats’ non-existent rushing defense.

Special teams are an edge, but the Wildcats will likely lose the field position battle

The Wildcats haven’t been able to stop shooting themselves in the foot when it comes time to punt the football this season. In a game like this one, that’ll make it hard for Northwestern to steal a victory. Northwestern ranks 98th nationally in net punting, behind punter Hunter Renner and his net punting average of just 37.6 yards.

This is the one aspect of special teams in which Utah has an advantage over the Wildcats. Utah ranks 24th in the same category, and in a game where the Wildcats are already a decent-sized underdog, they can’t afford any gaffes in the punting department if they want to win.

Kyle Whittingham and the talent gap

Even with its large number of outgoing transfers who aren’t playing in this game, it’s arguable that Utah not only has more talent at almost every level than Northwestern, but they have one of the best coaches in the country helping grow that talent. Ultimately, this is all this game could come down to. Going into this game, the national consensus is that the Utes are simply the better team. According to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, Utah is the 33rd-most talented team in the country. Northwestern ranks 52nd in that metric.

Coaching that talent is Whittingham, who has been the full-time head coach at Utah since 2005. He ranks seventh among active coaches in career wins with 162, or 155 more than first-year Northwestern coach David Braun for those keeping track at home. Talent plus exponentially more experience on the coaching front could equal a big victory for the Utes.