Northwestern did just enough to defeat Utah 14-7 in the team’s 13th and final contest from Allegiant Stadium, claiming the Las Vegas Bowl Trophy. Take a look at the Wildcats’ key contributors, and areas to improve, following the victory.
The pass rush
Both teams immediately set the tone, with Utah and Northwestern each racking up two sacks apiece on their respective first drives. It was just the start for the ‘Cats, who totaled five takedowns on the evening en route to surrendering just seven points on the evening.
The best part was, it wasn’t just one player that got hot; it seemed like everyone joined in on the party. Aidan Hubbard, Kenny Soares Jr., Carmine Bastone, Sean McLaughlin and Anto Saka all picked up sacks. Bryson Barnes couldn’t ever get anything going through the air, and picked up just 55 passing yards with the defensive line consistently forcing pressure in his face.
With both sides struggling to generate any momentum on offense, it was Joseph who brought the big plays to a big game that lacked them. On Utah’s third drive of the game, the safety played Ramon Laureano-esque center field on a deep shot from Bryson Barnes headed toward the end zone, as he secured a diving interception.
If that wasn’t enough, he picked off another Barnes heave on the following drive, and returned it 45 yards to the Utah 7-yard line. Although Northwestern wasn’t able to capitalize on the second turnover with any points, Joseph’s consecutive interceptions generated a great deal of early defensive momentum for a unit that was already stifling the Utes. It was a special performance for the senior, who tripled his collegiate interception total in the biggest game of his career.
Joseph brought the highlights to the table, but it was a phenomenal conclusion to the season for the Sky Team. Theran Johnson, Rod Heard, Garnett Hollis Jr. and Devin Turner all starred both against the pass and against the run. While Barnes only threw the ball 13 times, the secondary made constantly made its presence felt by blowing up short throws and excelling at filling gaps to keep Utah running back Jaylon Glover from getting a game-changing head of steam early on.
It was a great capper to what has been a great season for Northwestern’s defensive backs, arguably NU’s best position group in 2023. With a number of its core pieces set to return, the secondary should be a promising unit with bowl game success and some more continuity under its belt in the months to come.
Honorable Mentions: Ben Bryant and his poise. The Big Ten West, The Sphere, speed of concussion protocol, the linebackers
Where to even begin? Northwestern’s goal-line offense might be a good place to start. After Joseph put the ‘Cats inside Utah’s 10-yard line with his big interception return, Northwestern turned the short field into a grand total of... Zero points. On a fourth-and-goal three feet away from paydirt, Mike Bajakian dialed up a fade to Charlie Mangieri in the end zone that fell incomplete.
Northwestern’s average starting position was its own 40. The Wildcats had five drives that started past its own 40, and generated seven points in the first 54 minutes. Situationally — with the exception of NU’s two touchdown drives where Ben Bryant absolutely took over— it was an awful game for the offense. The reign of terror from alternating-game Bajakian survives another week.
One of Northwestern’s most reliable players throughout the season struggled mightily to cap off 2023. In the first half, Olsen missed field goals from 51 and 40 yards out, both of which had the distance but sailed wide right. Both were relatively tough tries for the All-Big Ten honoree, but he had never missed two field goal attempts in a game prior to the Las Vegas Bowl, let alone a half.
To make matters worse, Olsen’s kickoff to start the second half went out of bounds, which set Utah up at its own 35-yard line. While the Utes couldn’t directly capitalize on any of those miscues, they added up to what was a season-worst performance for Olsen.
As it has throughout most of the fall, Northwestern’s front couldn’t stymie its opponent on the ground. Utah accumulated north of 135 yards on the ground, and averaged 3.8 a carry. Particularly, Northwestern had a prime chance to seize a stronghold on the field position game early on, after Hunter Renner dropped a punt inside Utah’s 2-yard line. On the very first play from scrimmage, the ‘Cats proceeded to surrender a 25-yard run to Ja’Quinden Jackson.
Even though Barnes struggled mightily in the air and its offensive line didn’t fare much better, the Utes didn’t go three-and-out every drive because its ground game extended them. It kept Utah in contention despite its lack of offensive output in almost every other facet.
Honorable Mentions: Parlays, hitting on 14 in blackjack, my lungs walking through casinos, job security for Mike Bajakian, prices in Vegas (for everything), injuries