Northwestern and Utah overcome adversity to make the Las Vegas Bowl

Fri, Dec 22, 2023

Northwestern and Utah overcome adversity to make the Las Vegas Bowl

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he has never experienced a season with so many injuries like this one.

Northwestern coach David Braun was hired in January as the defensive coordinator, unaware he would be called upon to take over a program engulfed in a hazing controversy.

Both coaches navigated their circumstances to meet Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Utah (8-4) had major injuries at every offensive unit and was forced to go to their fifth-string quarterback at one point. The defense wasn't immune, with end Jonah Elliss and linebacker Lander Barton suffering season-ending injuries.

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"It's been challenging, but our guys answered the bell," Whittingham said. "Every week, it seemed to be a little shuffling of the lineup, but they handled it as well as possibly could be handled."

Braun had to step into a turbulent situation when coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired July 10 as a result of an investigation into a hazing scandal.

Not only did Braun have to find a way to keep the team from falling part over the off-field controversy, he also had to do with a team that went 1-11 the season before. The Wildcats are 7-5.

"He told us we've got a chance to write a really special story," Wildcats linebacker Bryce Gallagher said. "There was the initial phase of shock, but that's a credit to Coach Braun for keeping this team together. Now with the transfer portal, when you lose a coach, there's a window where guys could leave, but we didn't have a whole lot of guys do that."


Utah received positive news when running back Micah Bernard was cleared two weeks ago to play after suffering an injury in the season opener against Florida. Bernard has 1,117 career rushing yards.

"You miss that feeling, and when you lose a game, you feel like you can't do anything," Bernard said. "When you're playing and you lose, at least you gave it your all. But if you're watching and you lose, it hurts. It hurts a lot."


Northwestern was looking at a 1-3 start while down 21 points in the fourth quarter to Minnesota. Behind quarterback Ben Bryant, who completed 33 of 49 passes for 396 yards and four touchdowns, the Wildcats stormed back to win 37-34 in overtime.

"They found a way to win a game that no one really thought we'd have an opportunity to come back," Braun said. "More than anything else, it created a lot of confidence on our football team."


This is the Wildcats' second visit to Las Vegas and first since defeating UNLV 37-28 four nights before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Utah knows the host city well. The Utes are former members of the Mountain West, which includes the Rebels, and they won the Pac-12 Championship at Allegiant Stadium in 2021 and 2022.

This also is Utah's sixth appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Utes are 4-1 in this game.

They head to the Big 12 Conference next season, so their days of playing in Las Vegas might be over.

"Good question," Whittingham said. "Football is in such a crazy state right now, anything could happen in the next few years. I just know we're elated to be here this year and to play in Allegiant Stadium."


Las Vegas Bowl executive director John Saccenti said he has been in discussions regarding how the Pac-12's side will be filled the next two years with that conference down to only Oregon State and Washington State. The bowl has agreements with the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference.

All bowl contracts come up for renewal after those two years.

"I want to find a way to give us a little bit of flexibility, whether that's with multiple conferences, maybe tiers with other bowls," Saccenti said. "We don't know what the final plan will be. The good news is we have two conference partners now who want to remain conference partners with us. They want to work with us to help."


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