clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Five things to know about Utah as Northwestern prepares for first bowl game since 2021

There’s plenty to learn about a Utah team that has shown it can hang with some of the country’s best squads.

Northwestern Athletics

The ‘Cats are going to take on the Utah Utes in the SRS Distributions Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 23. The game will be broadcast on ABC at 6:30 p.m. CT. Here are five things to know about the Utes.

Bryson Barnes is a solid quarterback

Last year, starting quarterback Cam Rising suffered a severe knee injury in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. Utah hoped that he would return this year, but Rising was ruled out for the season in October. After battling for the job with Nate Johnson at the beginning of the year, Bryson Barnes won. Last week, Johnson entered the transfer portal, so Utah doesn’t have much depth behind Barnes.

Barnes has had a productive season so far, throwing for 1,517 yards and 12 touchdowns. Additionally, he is Utah’s fourth-leading rusher with 267 yards. The ‘Cats will have to be ready for the quarterback run game when they square off with the Utes’ offense. Although Barnes recently announced that he is also entering the transfer portal after this season, he is still going to play against Northwestern.

Sione Vaki is a Swiss Army Knife

Vaki started off the season solely as a safety but has proven to be much more. This year, he is fourth on the team with 50 tackles. However, as the season has gone on, he has been integrated into the offense. With running back Micah Bernard out for the season and ball carrier Ja’Quinden Jackson picking up a minor injury in Week Four, the Utes had a hole at running back. Vaki’s first game action as a running back was in Week Five against Oregon State. The next week against California, he had 15 carries for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Vaki has also shown how valuable he can be as a receiver. In a win over USC, Vaki had five catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns. In the weeks since, Vaki has continued to play on offense and defense; however, head coach Kyle Whittingham has limited Vaki’s offensive snaps to preserve his legs.

While Utah’s running back room has gotten healthier with Jackson returning, Northwestern will have to keep an eye out for when Vaki is in the game. He is an extremely explosive weapon for Utah.

The Utes will be without a key contributor

Utah won’t have wide receiver Devaughn Vele for their bowl game. On Sunday, the 6-foot-5-inch receiver declared for the NFL Draft. This is a huge loss for Utah as Vele is the team’s leading receiver with 593 yards this season. He has more than double the receiving yards than the Utes’ next highest pass catcher. Vele is also tied for the most receiving touchdowns on the team.

Vele joined the team in 2019 as a walk-on and has worked his way to becoming the offense’s top receiver. He is coming off his two best games of the season against Washington and Arizona. Against the Huskies, Vele had five catches for 145 yards, and he had nine catches for 111 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. The absence of Vele boosts Northwestern’s chances.

Utah is led by a fantastic coach

Kyle Whittingham is one of the longest tenured coaches in the country. In 2005, Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer after Meyer left to go to Florida. Since then, Whittingham has been Utah’s head coach. His team has been a model of consistency as they have had a winning record in 17 of his 19 seasons. Over the last five years, Whittingham has guided his team to three 10-win seasons.

Earlier this week, David Braun said that he admires Utah’s program and that it has been a model for him in constructing Northwestern’s roster. Braun did professional development with the Utes and was able to see how the team was built. Braun wants to build his team similarly to the way Whittingham has: developmental, complementary and physical.

The Utes were ranked No. 10 this season

Following a win over UCLA, Utah moved to 4-0 on the season and were ranked No. 10 in the country. The Utes have stumbled a little down the stretch, but their four losses have all been against ranked teams. Their losses this year are against Oregon State, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. The Utes only lost by seven points on the road against Washington. Even though Utah doesn’t have a dominant offense or defense, it is sound on both sides. Defensively, the team has held opponents to 14 points or fewer in six games this year. Offensively, the Utes have scored 28 points or more five times this season, highlighted by a 55-point outing against Arizona State. Utah has a lot of solid pieces and will be a tough test for Northwestern.