On Saturday (12/23/23), Utah faces Northwestern in the Las Vegas Bowl. In this article, find the latest betting odds for the game and a full breakdown of the matchup. In addition, find our best bet which is Northwestern +6.5.
Utah vs. Northwestern Prediction
This season, Utah maintained an 8-4 record despite an anemic offense as a result of injuries – they were without starting quarterback Cam Rising for the whole season. RB Micah Bernard, WR Mycah Pittman, and TE Brant Kuithe were among the other significant offensive players to suffer season-ending injuries.
Bryson Barnes, a former pig farmer turned walk-on quarterback, started for most of the season, but he led Utah to just 24.5 points per game, which ranked 85th in the country. Barnes will play in this game despite entering the transfer portal, but it’s doubtful that he’ll have much success against a Northwestern defense with top 60 marks in EPA per pass allowed and PFF’s coverage grades.
Northwestern, meanwhile, had an ignominious start with the firing of former head coach Pat Fitzgerald just over a month before the season kicked off. However, first-year defensive coordinator David Braun was elevated to interim head coach and led Northwestern to seven wins, the most for any first-year Northwestern coach since 1903. He went from the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State to a permanent Big Ten head coach in less than one year.
Kyle Whittingham is 11-5 in bowl games in his career, although he’s lost four straight including two Rose Bowls in the last two seasons. Meanwhile, Northwestern has won its last four bowl games, although that was with Fitzgerald and not Braun as head coach. Braun has the Wildcats playing inspired football as he’s been able to galvanize the program this season.
Ultimately, I don’t see a huge difference in the statistical profiles between these teams with both offenses possessing major flaws and both defenses having the upper hand. However, Northwestern has the potential motivational edge here as Utah had much greater aspirations after winning the Pac-12 each of the last two seasons. In what’s expected to be a low-scoring grinder, I’ll take the points with the dog.
Utah vs. Northwestern Prediction: Northwestern +6.5
Utah vs. Northwestern Best Odds
We’ve seen significant movement in the numbers for this game as Utah opened as high as 9.5-point favorites. Money has hit Northwestern, driving it down the the current -6.5. The under has also steamed down from an open of 42.5 down to 41.5. With the current numbers, the books are implying a projected score of around 24-17 in favor of Utah.
Utah vs. Northwestern Key Matchups
While this is certainly expected to be a defensive battle in Las Vegas, these teams have quarterbacks who will be relied upon to move the ball. Let’s break down what those passers are up against on Saturday.
Bryson Barnes Vs. Northwestern’s Pass Defense
Despite hitting the transfer portal, Bryson Barnes is expected to start for Utah in this game. While his efficiency has left some to be desired this season, his story is everything we love about sports as he went from not even being on scholarship before the season to leading Utah to an eight-win campaign.
Barnes still had just eight big-time throws to ten turnover-worthy plays per PFF, however, and he’s up against a solid Northwestern pass defense. The cornerback trio of Rod Heard II, Theran Johnson, and Garnett Hollis Jr. all had very strong seasons for the Wildcats, and they’ll help shut down the Utah passing game.
Ben Bryant Vs. Utah’s Pass Defense
Ben Bryant’s numbers were very similar to those of Bryson Barnes this season, and Bryant finished with ten big-time throws to 12 turnover-worthy plays. His 84.2 passer rating did come in slightly higher than Barnes, and he led Northwestern to wins in their final three games against Wisconsin, Purdue, and Illinois to reach bowl eligibility.
Bryant will face a tough test here against a Utah defense that allows little through the air, ranking 13th in pass defense success rate. However, the Utes will be missing some key pieces in the bowl game. Jonah Elliss, who led the team with 12 sacks, suffered a season-ending injury, while starting safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki have declared for the NFL Draft and are opt-out candidates.