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Gordon Monson: Anybody excited about Utah playing … who’s this, 7-5 Northwestern?

After back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl, a return to Las Vegas will feel like a letdown for Utes fans, The Tribune columnist writes.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes fans cheer during the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Talk about a major bowl game letdown. This is it.

From the Rose to the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl? There’s no other way to say it.

Ewwww.

The Arroyo Seco and Colorado Blvd. never seemed better, nor so far, far away.

Utah football and its fans had grown accustomed to playing on Pasadena’s hallowed ground the past two postseasons, to absorbing all the goodness of college football’s tradition. And while it’s not exactly shocking that the Utes ended up in Vegas, nor is playing at Allegiant Stadium any sort of penal edict to suit up on a dog track somewhere in Egypt, what is surprising and disappointing is Utah’s opponent.

Northwestern? Really?

Make no mistake, disillusionment will be the Utes’ biggest foe in this particular postseason, not the Wildcats themselves. The coaches will never say it, and maybe the players won’t, either, not publicly. But they’ll feel it, they’ll have to battle it because … they’re human. They faced adversity this season, again and again, with the most injury-riddled campaign in Kyle Whittingham’s tenure at Utah. And, as the coach said, he and his team had big aspirations this time around, and fell short, they nonetheless did the best they could without their two most important players, key leaders who played not one snap, and a couple of fistfuls of other difference-makers who missed all kinds of time.

It was brutal, so brutal that finishing at 8-4, even in the face of those highfalutin intentions, seemed OK, after all.

What did the Utes get for their toughness, their determination, their resiliency?

A matchup with an opponent from the Big Ten that overwhelmed exactly nobody this season, that’s what.

If Northwestern’s record of 7-5 compared with Utah’s 8-4 doesn’t seem like a major numerical difference, just the swing of one game, you can make the same argument in the other direction. Northwestern is one swing game away from having finished at 6-6.

The Wildcats, though, get some allowance, some praise for overcoming adversity of their own — in the form of a hazing scandal that brought in a new coach just before season’s start.

A review of Northwestern’s schedule reveals that it lost to Rutgers, 24-7, lost to Duke, 38-14, lost to Penn State, 41-13, lost to Nebraska, 17-9, and lost to Iowa, 10-7. On the plus side, they beat UTEP, 38-7, beat Minnesota in OT, 37-34, beat Maryland, 33-27, beat Wisconsin, 24-10, beat Purdue, 23-15, and beat Illinois, 45-43.

There was one other midseason win for N’western, a 23-20 victory over Howard. That’s right, a three-point triumph over Howard, a team that also lost to the Eastern Michigan Eagles, the Hampton Pirates, the Harvard Crimson, a 48-7 shellacking, and the South Carolina State Bulldogs.

The idea here isn’t to run down the Wildcats. Well. Maybe it is, a little.

It’s just to point out the simple fact that the Utes, regardless of who will be available to play and who won’t, who will want to play and who won’t, will have to watch themselves, will have to not allow place and opponent to give them a severe case of the blahs, a case of who gives a flying freak.

If they’re not careful, they could suffer the same calamity suffered by Howard, and no self-respecting Ute wants that.

You can almost hear Whittingham giving his team the same warning, pumping his guys full of identical cautions about what Northwestern did to the mighty Bison. He could have stronger motivational arguments about the Wildcats’ tight loss to Iowa, their current three-game win streak, such as it is, and the tidbit that Northwestern has won two of the three previous games played between these two schools. Pay no attention to the betting lines, which currently have the Utes as double-digit favorites. There’s also the cool factor to look forward to, as Utah has previously done, playing on the Raiders’ home field, where the Utes have had success in the recent past in the Pac-12 title game.

This will be Utah’s record-tying sixth appearance in the Vegas Bowl, so it will either gain the advantage of being completely familiar and comfortable with the drill or will find the whole of it so five-or-10-or-15 years ago, something short of what they now are worthy.