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LAS VEGAS — If Utah was auditioning for the Big Ten West in the Las Vegas Bowl, there’s a good chance the team made its case well Saturday night.
Utah made Northwestern feel at home with a nearly identical showing of an Iowa team that ranked 133rd out of 133 teams in FBS in total offense and featured a stout defense.
The Utes had 59 total yards of offense, and quarterback Bryson Barnes was 4-of-8 for 10 yards and two interceptions in the first half. And it didn’t get much better in the second half, either.
At least until the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback Luke Bottari completed an 18-yard pass on third down to start the fourth quarter, and Utah had enough momentum to finish the drive with a 7-yard rushing touchdown by Micah Bernard for the first points of the game for the Utes.
But after both teams traded turnovers on downs, Northwestern needed just three plays to go 53 yards, and Wildcats quarterback Ben Bryant completed a 19-yard touchdown pass to give the Big Ten team a 14-7 win.
The loss Saturday is the fifth straight bowl loss for the Utes (8-5), who started the losing skid against Northwestern (8-5) in the Holiday Bowl in 2018.
Utah made a late push in the fourth quarter, finding success with multiple runs by Bernard; but much like the first three quarters before it, Utah couldn’t find enough offense to get the job done. Utah was stopped on a fourth-and-3 attempt with just under two minutes left to play at Northwestern’s 38-yard line, and the Wildcats held on for the win.
“Not a good showing by us today,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Congratulations to Northwestern; they played well. They had our offense completely stymied. … Tough to win a football game scoring 7 points and losing the turnover margin 3-0, so not a good formula. But, again, give them credit, they played hard, they were well prepared.
“Just didn’t have enough in the tank on offense and couldn’t get much going.”
The Utes finished with 211 total yards of offense, and Barnes passed for only 55 yards on 8-of-13 passing for the game in a disjointed effort that Whittingham said began with poor offensive line play.
“They beat us up up front,” Whittingham said. “Typically we own the line of scrimmage; tonight was not that — that was not the case. We did not play as well as we typically do up front, and that’s where everything starts. And so we weren’t able to get much of a push. We did find a few creases here and there but nothing consistent.”
But the run wasn’t the only thing stopping Utah. Barnes threw two interceptions and missed reads for much of the night. Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Rose was seen warming up on the sideline, but Utah never made the switch outside of when Barnes had to be subbed out for his helmet coming off.
Whittingham said there was never really any consideration to switch up quarterbacks, because Rose was not ready for the moment and the coaching staff felt Barnes gave the team the best chance to win — regardless of his lack of production on the field.
“He is just not ready to do that yet,” Whittingham said of Rose. “He’s just not grasping the offense and decision-making. He’s still in his learning stages — his learning stage. He’s got a lot of things going for him — he’s got a big arm and he moves around pretty good — so it’s not indicative of where he could be at some point in time, but he’s just not ready to be thrust in there right now.”
That left Utah with few options to try to combat an offense that couldn’t get much going.
Starting running back Ja’Quinden Jackson, who finished with 55 yards on eight carries, had early success but left the game in the first quarter after an injury. That left Jaylon Glover and Bernard to do the work.
The two running backs combined for 80 yards rushing, but it wasn’t enough to combat Northwestern’s equally good defense.
“We wasn’t getting the right looks we wanted, wasn’t executed enough,” Bernard said. “Coach always say: The plays are the plays, but it’s the players who make the play. So we’ve got to make the plays as players, and we didn’t do that.”
Whittingham summed it up best, though.
“Today is very forgettable and we’ve got to bury this one and move on, because this was not part of a — no positive came out of this game tonight, at least I can’t see it right now,” he said.