Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: What to Watch For: It’s almost time. Northwestern prepares for Las Vegas Bowl against Utah

Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal
Offensive linemen senior Josh Priebe and junior Caleb Tiernan fist bump before a play. Priebe transferred to Michigan in December, citing uncertainty over offensive line coach Kurt Anderson’s future at Northwestern.

After a thrilling week of magic shows, a trip down Fremont street and chance to soak in all the Las Vegas strip has to offer, Northwestern’s time to shine has finally come.

The Wildcats’ (7-5 overall, 5-4 Big Ten) will take on Utah (8-4 overall, 5-4 Pac-12) in the 2023 SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday in Allegiant Stadium at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time to cap off their venture out west. Although the saying ‘whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ reigns supreme, both teams hope to leave with hardware.

Even though All-Big Ten senior offensive lineman Josh Priebe won’t be suiting up after entering the transfer portal in early December, NU enters the bowl game on a high. The ‘Cats won its final three regular season games with most of its roster still intact after the portal closed.

“Everything that this team has achieved is a reflection of the character of this group,” head coach David Braun said. “It’s an incredible opportunity for our team to go up against an incredible opponent, and key it up tomorrow and go compete our tails off and hopefully put it on full display.”

Utah enters the bowl game off a victory over Colorado that snapped its two game losing streak. Unlike NU, though, the Utes will be without multiple starters due to the portal, 2024 NFL draft and injuries. Still, Utah is currently 6.5-point favorites in the Saturday affair according to ESPN.

Here are three storylines to read ahead of the ‘Cats bowl game in Sin City.

1.  NU’s pass attack against a weakened Utah secondary 

With numerous Utah players opting out of their final game, the Utes biggest hit will likely come at the safety position. 

Both starting safeties Sione Vaki and Cole Bishop declared for the draft and won’t play in Saturday’s bowl game. Additionally, Utah will be without its starting cornerback JaTravis Broughton, who entered the transfer portal in early December.

For a pass-heavy offense like the ‘Cats’, it’s music to their ears. 

Sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant described this team’s strong experience as different from the program in the past. This could be the difference maker against a Utah secondary that may not be able to say the same. 

“There’s so much maturity on this team,” Bryant said. “I’m just really happy that this team brought me in and welcomed me with open arms.”

Facing pass-heavy teams throughout the regular season like Washington and Oregon, Utah’s secondary fared nicely against them, giving up over 300 passing to two of its six ranked opponents. 

The Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham feels confident in the unit, even without multiple starters taking the field. He cited the team’s depth and the PAC-12 competition’s level as the reason behind his optimistic belief.

But, even with this depth, NU’s consistent proof of being a threat through the air could cause concern. 

2. How the ‘Cats offensive line will hold up against the Utes stronghold

Wittingham noted the ‘Cats impressive offensive line, also describing NU as a well-coached, tough team. 

Wittingham’s comment comes as a surprise to many –– although NU’s protection service has had its bright spots, it hasn’t been Braun’s sharpest tool in the shed this season. They’ve given up the most sacks in the Big Ten with 48.

And after Priebe’s decision, the group won’t be at its strongest on Saturday.

Utah will be without its top defensive end Jonah Elliss due to a season-ending injury, who ranked second in the FBS in sacks 10 games into the season. However, similar to the secondary, Wittingham acknowledged the depth his team had on the defensive line.  

Even so, Braun has liked NU’s output at practice — a potential good sign for an offensive line that has its work cut out for them.

“I just have been so impressed with our practices back in Evanston and this group has continued to improve all week,” Braun said. “The level of urgency, communication (and) intentionality that this group is putting on display, they’ve left no doubt in their preparation.” 

When Wittingham mentioned the seriousness of the ‘next man up’ mentality, Braun couldn’t help but nod in agreement with the opposing head coach. It’s been a mantra he’s echoed throughout the 2023 season.

And, in a contest where each team will be without top players due to injury or the transfer portal, that motto will be more important than ever.

3. A bowl game win could change the program’s trajectory

Complete with magic shows, the Las Vegas strip, Allegiant stadium and even complementary socks given to the media alongside their press credentials — the magnitude of Saturday’s bowl game is through the roof.

More importantly, though, a victory could mean so much for NU.

Besides the momentum it adds entering the offseason and for the 2024 campaign, it doubles down on how legit Braun’s squad really is. It could open potential recruits’ eyes to what’s being built in Evanston.

“This opportunity at Northwestern is an absolute dream come true,” Braun said. “Has it sunk in? Honestly, it hasn’t. And I’m waking up each morning full of gratitude for the opportunity.”  

The Utes are no pushover, even with their injuries and star players that opted-out. Outside of beating both then-No. 18 USC and then-No. 22 UCLA, Utah lost to now-No. 2 Washington by just one touchdown in November.

And, such a formidable opponent would make the win even more special — a team that only won one game in 2022 and was projected to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten before the season taking down the 2021 and 2022 Pac-12 champions.

Outside of the ‘Cats program, many didn’t expect a successful season for NU, much less for the ‘Cats to secure a bowl appearance. 

A win or loss on Saturday wouldn’t define their season whatsoever, but one thing is clear: NU’s playing with house money. 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @LPIII_TRES 

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Football: David Braun breaks down Northwestern’s 2024 recruiting class and program’s future

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