It’s officially bowl week. Northwestern traveled out to the Sin City for the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah on Saturday. To fill us in on the Utes, Inside NU spoke to Josh Furlong, Sports Director of KSL.com.
INU: Utah has seen many players opt out of this game for various reasons. What version of the Utes should the Wildcats expect?
Furlong: Though it’s ultimately difficult to know what the motivation level will be for this Utah team, I believe it will be a lot like the version during the regular season. With so many players in and out of the lineup due to injury, Utah’s players have been forced to be nimble and adapt to constant change. In some ways, I believe this helps them going into the bowl game. Utah lost a lot of talent in the wide receiver room, but the Utes have always relied on its run game, and that room has a lot of depth and will be ready to go. If they can establish the run, Utah will be able to do most of what it wants to do.
INU: Bryson Barnes has entered the transfer portal, yet he is still expected to start for Utah. What can be expected from Barnes, and do you think the Utes may have a different signal caller under center?
Furlong: Outside of Barnes, Utah doesn’t have a lot of experienced options at quarterback. Ideally, they’d have redshirt freshman Brandon Rose taking snaps and getting some experience, but he hasn’t seen the field in two seasons and was forced to sit out due to an unfortunate injury in fall camp. Rose will still be an option as the backup, but Barnes is the only real option here. Though Barnes is in the portal, it shouldn’t impact anything. For the last three seasons, Barnes has continued to defy odds and fights harder than most on the team. Though a former walk-on, he’s continued to beat out other quarterbacks. He’s limited in his ability, but he’s been good enough for Utah.
INU: Northwestern’s offense is powered by its passing game. With Utah’s top two safeties not playing, how does its secondary matchup against the ‘Cats’ air attack?
Furlong: Utah has been tested most of the season against heavy-passing offenses and has fared well against these teams. Losing Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop will be a big blow to the team, but they have proven guys in Nate Ritchie and Tao Johnson that have provided some great depth for the team and have some experience to fill in. It’s safe to assume this is the area Utah will struggle with most on defense — it certainly won’t be the same as the regular season — but this is arguably the deepest team Kyle Whittingham has had on defense. If something does go wrong, though, this is where I predict it happening.
INU: Northwestern’s weak point is its offensive line. Even without Jonah Elliss, who do the ‘Cats need to look out for from Utah’s pass rush?
Furlong: Defensive end might be one of Utah’s deepest position groups, with a handful of guys that have experience. Utah will rely on Van Fillinger and Connor O’Toole, who both have a lot of starter experience. Fillinger has been a three-year starter and is disruptive, but not incredibly quick. On the other side of the line is O’Toole, who is considered the best pass rusher on the team — at least that’s what coaches said before the season. O’Toole battled injury for much of the season before joining the team late in the year, but is coming into regular form.
INU: Despite Utah having more opt-outs, it is still favored by nearly a touchdown. What is your prediction for the game?
Furlong: It’s difficult to predict bowl games, especially with how many players have transferred, opted out or are injured for Utah. But with that said, I think if Utah can establish the run and find some success in the passing game, they’re capable of winning by a touchdown or more. To me, it all depends on the effort level of this team, though. When Utah is engaged and playing for something, they’ve been tough to beat — as evidenced by a close game against Washington. But if Utah goes through the motions and doesn’t come out firing — much like they did after a loss to Washington — I have a tough time seeing Utah coming away with a win. Obviously, Northwestern will have a say in all this, too, but that’s looking at it from a Utah angle.