Oddity permeated the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday evening. It was the kind of football game that might’ve been played not at Allegiant Stadium, rather in the Twilight Zone. Rod Serling should have been on the call, providing both the play-by-play and the color, with the da-da-dada, da-da-dada theme music blaring in the background.
Here’s some of what I mean.
— Try as it might, and bless the Vegas Bowl’s heart, it ain’t the Rose Bowl. If the Utes felt a bit of a letdown after consecutive visits to the latter, it’s only because they are human. But … no, not this, not like this. This performance, by their standard, was subhuman.
— Utah scored exactly no points in the first half. It had 10 passing yards and two picks over that initial span. Later came a fumble. It presented almost no threat to sustain drives. Understand, that’s what the Utes do. They possess the ball. They hog the ball. They play keep-away. Not on this occasion, when they couldn’t throw, they couldn’t get open, they couldn’t run, they couldn’t protect their quarterback, their quarterback couldn’t find open targets. It was nothing short of a mess.
— What could the Utes do? Lose to Northwestern, that’s what, by the count of 14-7. They somehow managed to make the Wildcats’ defense look like the ‘85 Chicago Bears.
— There was no real conference representation here, no feeling of regional rivalry to this thing, no West-versus-Midwest-pride quotient, none of the usual this-is-where-real-football-is-done bravado, no Pac-12-is-better-than-the-BigTen type of fire. As is so often the case in earthly matters, the deceased — the Pac-12 — had no representation because … there was nothing left to rep, nor anything to deserve it.
— Northwestern was not just more motivated than the Utes — a rarity for any Utah opponent — it was more capable, more unified, more energized.
— If Utah had been a rock band instead of a football team, it would have been a cross between the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. And we’re not talking just about its tepid showing. Rolling and blessed the Utes were by what the Pac-12 had offered them through the years and what certain Pac-12 schools’ greed had destroyed, but on this occasion the Utes arrived under their own banner and only their own banner. Were they a team from the Pac-12 or a team from the Big 12? It didn’t matter. They were betwixt and between. They were Utah’s Utes, nobody else’s, but they failed to play with that determination, loud and proud. They were a team without a country, a team in transition, a team that could’ve pulled up as much in a team hearse as a team bus, straight out of that now-dead conference, playing the Wildcats, a team from a living, breathing league that the Utes, had they had their druthers, would prefer to be invited into.
— Speaking of rolling stones, Utah’s quarterback, Bryson Barnes, really wasn’t Utah’s quarterback. He was starting for the Utes and all, but he already had declared that he was bailing on them, heading off through the transfer portal to a place better suited for the most heralded pig farmer in all of college football. On this night, he who was the Utes’ but really wasn’t completed eight of 13 passes for a mere 55 yards. He couldn’t hurt N’Western’s defense and N’Western’s defense knew it.
— Utah’s real quarterback, Cam Rising, was where he had been all season long — standing on the sideline in fancy Utah athletic garb that was on its way to becoming fancier still. That baseball cap Ute fans had become so familiar with through Rising’s season of injury, his flowing locks tumbling out the back, was about to be diamond encrusted, what with the freshly signed lucrative NIL deal hanging out of his pants pocket.
— OK, this is way weird. With all the success Utah’s program has had in recent years, the Utes lost their fifth-straight bowl game. It’s one thing to lose to Ohio State and Penn State in the Rose, quite another to take a loss like Saturday night’s.
— A number of the Utes’ best players could have played, but did not and nobody could blame them for declining. As Kyle Whittingham acknowledged, this has long become and will continue to be a CF trend — unless — and this is my suggestion, not his — some sort of financial reward is offered players to counter the risk of getting hurt in the run-up to the NFL Draft. Sione Vaki opted out. Cole Bishop opted out. Keaton Bills opted out. Sataoa Laumea opted out. Who else? Devaughn Vele. Are we forgetting anyone? Probably. The transfer portal had eight exits. So it is that bowl games don’t always reflect a team’s finest form.
— Utah’s best defensive player, Jonah Elliss, missed the game on account of injury, but the good news for the Utes was and is that he’s expected to return for another run next season. His absence was notable because Northwestern was known for allowing its quarterback to be hit and sacked. Imagine what Elliss, who ranked first in FBS in sacks per game and fourth in tackles for loss, might have gotten done.
— The Utes’ offensive front, which heretofore had been mostly reliable, suffered from the absence of Laumea and Bills, surrendering multiple sacks, especially early on, Barnes feeling more pressure than he’d been accustomed to.
— Mistakes plagued Utah’s attack. No wonder Whittingham looked as though his head would spin off at any moment and rotate down the sideline. The man, like most coaches, loathes turnovers, doesn’t just hate them, he can’t tolerate them. He had to do exactly that here, unfortunately for him.
— Northwestern’s kicker, who had missed three field goals all season, missed two in this game, so the final numbers could have been worse for the Utes. Moreover, at one juncture, the Wildcats went for it within a sneeze of the goal line and were stopped by Utah’s defense. As it turned out, had they kicked a short field goal, it could have elongated the final tally.
— Northwestern scored late in the second quarter and that’s the way it stayed until Micah Bernard, in his first appearance since the first game of the season, ran in for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. From there, the strangeness continued because the Utes couldn’t do what they so often do — find a way to win. They never fully solved N’Western’s resistance. The offense, then, rather obviously should take the heat for the defeat.
— It hurt the Utes not at all that the Wildcats’ starting QB Ben Bryant got hurt with about 12 minutes left in the game, replaced by a sub who couldn’t do what Bryant did, couldn’t hit the side of a parked semi-trailer. He threw a couple of passes so high Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t have touched them. Bryant did reemerge with six minutes remaining, and that made all the difference.
— With the score knotted at 7, Utah went for it on fourth-and-2 near midfield with just more than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, but Jaylon Glover had no created space and was stoned, no chance to get the necessary yardage, allowing Northwestern to take over for its late victorious push.
— Bryant, the QB who had just a few minutes earlier been sidelined, undergoing concussion protocol, subsequently dropped a 19-yard dime into the arms of Bryce Kirtz in the end zone for the game-winner near the six-minute mark.
— With one last chance to tie the count, on a fourth-and-3 at, fittingly enough, the Northwestern 43-yard line with 1:59 left, Barnes was late on the delivery of his short throw to Money Parks, the ball deflected, falling incomplete. Game over.
— And just like that, a team that won a single game and lost 11 in its previous season beat the Utes in a bowl game now. Yeah, I know, odd, odd, odd, weird, weird, weird. You could hear Rod Serling uttering the benediction.
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