Northwestern relied on stingy defense and just enough offense to grind out a 14-7 win over Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday. In a matchup of resilient teams that overcame adversity, the Wildcats made key plays at critical moments to secure their fourth straight bowl victory.
Second-Half Touchdown the Difference for Gritty Wildcats
The lone touchdown of the second half, a 15-yard scamper by Northwestern running back Evan Hull with 10:36 left in the fourth quarter, proved to be the winning margin.
Hull finished with 120 hard-fought rushing yards on 28 gritty carries. He was named MVP thanks to several chain-moving runs in the second half that allowed Northwestern to control possession and set up the go-ahead score.
“Evan played with determination and heart today,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. We challenged him at halftime to put the team on his back, and he delivered when we needed it most.”
Stingy Defenses Limit Offenses
Defense dominated the first half, with the teams combining for just 13 first downs. Utah managed the lone first-half touchdown on a short TD pass from quarterback Bryson Barnes to Dalton Kincaid. Otherwise, neither offense could find an early rhythm.
“We knew points would be at a premium today,” Fitzgerald added. “Fortunately, our defense brought championship-level effort and execution. They did more than enough for us to grind out a tough win.”
Northwestern finally broke through right before halftime on a 34-yard scamper by backup QB David Braun to tie the game 7-7 heading into the locker room.
Utes Stymied Trying to Find Offensive Spark
Meanwhile, Utah’s attack simply couldn’t sustain drives after quarterback Cameron Rising surprisingly opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft. Barnes fought valiantly in his first career start but faced constant pressure from the Wildcats defense.
The Utes managed only a paltry 266 total yards on the day. Take away a 50-yard catch and run by Money Parks, and they netted just 3.6 yards per play.
“We hoped to find a spark on offense at some point, but it never materialized,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Their defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage. We struggled to block them or get any kind of running game going.”
Looking Ahead After Hard-Fought Las Vegas Bowl
While disappointed in the loss, Coach Whittingham emphasized the character and heart his injury-plagued team showed battling until the final whistle.
“I’m proud of the grit our guys showed in the face of adversity all season,” he noted. “We fought to the bitter end today but came up a little short.”
For Coach Fitzgerald and his Wildcats, closing the year with four straight victories provides momentum heading into 2024. With most offensive weapons returning, including bowl MVP Hull and quarterback Braun, Northwestern appears poised to contend in the wide-open Big Ten West next season.
“This was a total team effort and really embodies the aspirational culture we are building,” Fitzgerald explained. “We plan on letting today’s momentum carry over. The future is bright for this program.”
The box score details showed Northwestern’s rushing prowess and turnover-free performance allowed them to dictate play most of the afternoon. Utah’s inability to run the football consistently ultimately proved too much to overcome.
With another gritty, hard-fought bowl win now in the books, the Wildcats will enjoy the offseason and get back to work fueling their new-found momentum. The Utes will look to bounce back and make another championship run in 2024.
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