An offense falling flat, a QB conundrum, and one feel-good moment defined Utah’s bowl loss

The Utes’ performance in Saturday’s 14-7 loss to Northwestern was ugly pretty much all the way around, aside from the emotional return of RB Micah Bernard.

Utah running back Micah Bernard (2) dives into end zone for a touchdown against Northwestern during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Las Vegas • When it was announced that Bryson Barnes would play in the bowl game before departing via the transfer portal, Utah football fans breathed a sigh of relief, figuring the team would be able to mount some semblance of an attack against Northwestern.

Yeah, about that …

Inconsistent offense and sporadic quarterback play was the Utes’ biggest problem throughout the season, and that proved to be the case yet again in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Utah did not surpass 100 yards of total offense until the final few plays of the third quarter, did not get on the scoreboard until the fourth, and wound up dropping a disappointing and embarrassing 14-7 decision to the Wildcats.

Here’s a breakdown of all the various breakdowns, as well as a deeper dive into the one happy moment of the evening.

Nothing doing on O

(David Becker | AP) Northwestern defensive back Jaheem Joseph (3) intercepts a pass intended for Utah wide receiver Money Parks, right, during the first half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Utah gained 34 yards in the first quarter.

And 25 in the second.

And 48 in the third.

Only a 104-yard outburst in the final quarter got them past 200 total for the game.

The Utes only had five passing yards in each of the first three quarters, and totaled only 73 for the game.

Barnes threw two horrific interceptions.

Star running back Ja’Quinden Jackson — arguably the team’s only viable weapon in the opening half, gaining 55 yards on eight carries — took a hit and stayed down on the field for a time, before leaving the game with an injury.

His replacement, Jaylon Glover, had a rare sizable gain early in the third quarter … only to have the ball stripped at the end and recovered by the Wildcats.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham summed it up pretty well postgame.

“We had [13] possessions — seven times we punt, three times we turn it over, [twice] we don’t get it on fourth down, and once we score,” he said. “It’s tough to win a football game scoring seven points and losing the turnover margin 3-0. Not a good formula.”

Yeah, not so much.

Bad as the passing attack was, it’s not like the ground game excelled. Yes, the Utes had 138 rushing yards — but that was on 51 attempts. That’s 2.7 yards per carry, about half of what Utah aims for.

Asked what the biggest issue was in the toothless attack, Whittingham quickly singled out the underwhelming offensive line play, which struggled without two season-long starters.

“They beat us up up front. Yeah, typically we own line of scrimmage; tonight, that was not the case,” he said. “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 hit a few creases here and there, but nothing consistent. We didn’t consistently run the ball as well as we usually do.”

He would go on to say that it wasn’t the players’ fault, and that the coaches needed to have them better prepared, but Micah Bernard, who scored Utah’s only touchdown, said the athletes recognized they had an underwhelming performance.

“The plays are the plays, but it’s the players who make the plays,” he said. “We’ve gotta make the plays, and we didn’t do that.”

The Brandon Rose conundrum

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) is sacked by Northwestern defensive lineman Carmine Bastone (90) during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Brandon Rose was thought to be a candidate to be the starter at the beginning of the season with Cam Rising out, but then he got injured himself.

Since then, he’s mostly been running the scout team.

He was the emergency third-stringer in the regular-season finale vs. Colorado, and was once again available to play Saturday, despite the team’s desire to help him maintain a season of eligibility via a medical redshirt.

But with Barnes struggling mightily, and Rose going out on the field during timeouts and getting warm-up throws in, there was some speculation that he might play.

Apparently, fans and media made more of that than coaches and players did.

“That was just him warming up — he wasn’t instructed to do so or anything like that,” Whittingham said.

The coach also clarified that the redshirt situation wasn’t what kept Rose off the field vs. Northwestern.

“No, he just is not ready to do that yet. He’s just not grasping the offense, and the decision-making he’s doing is in the learning stages,” said Whittingham. “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.”


Also curious was the decision not to stick with Luke Bottari. The starter vs. Colorado, he made a brief appearance vs. the ’Cats after Barnes took a hit on a keeper and had to exit the game when his helmet came off in the collision.

The Utes had 15 yards passing through three quarters. On the first play of the fourth, Bottari connected with Glover for an 18-yard gain on a screen.

Apparently, though, there was little consideration of sticking with him.

“Well, you talk about it, but when Bryson was ready to come back, we just decided that Bryson gave us our best chance to win,” said Whittingham.

Good but not elite defense

(David Becker | AP) Northwestern wide receiver Cam Johnson (14) makes a touchdown reception against Utah safety Nate Ritchie (31) during the first half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Utah’s defense limited the Wildcats to just 291 total yards and 14 points.

Pretty outstanding numbers, considering season-long starting safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki skipped the game after declaring for the NFL draft.

And yet, the Utes weren’t really happy with their effort on that side of the ball.

“We didn’t tackle very well on defense, we usually do a better job,” said Whittingham. “We could have played even better on defense had we tackled well.”

Meanwhile, even though Northwestern was hardly prolific, they had just enough chunk plays to keep the ball moving and get in the end zone twice.

“I feel like we were able to [mostly] limit those explosive plays, but the timing of [the ones they got] was real unfortunate,” said linebacker Karene Reid.

There were several uncharacteristically baffling miscues — like when the Wildcats got a walk-in TD because Utah simply neglected to cover Cam Johnson on his 12-yard reception.

Even though the defense mostly played well and the offense mostly did not, he refused to point fingers, noting that after Bernard’s TD tied the game, Utah’s defense immediately surrendered what would prove to be the winning score.

He also lamented that aforementioned 3-0 turnover margin.

“We needed to start going for takeaways. It’s one thing to stop them, but in a game like that where we’re struggling, you’ve got to get the ball out,” said Reid. “They took it away three times from us, and we couldn’t get it from them. So that makes it really difficult to win.”

Micah Bernard’s emotional return

Utah wide receiver Munir McClain (4) carries the ball against Northwestern during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Bernard was lost early in the season when he suffered an off-the-field injury.

Saturday marked his first game played in three months, and he was clearly emotional about getting back out on the field.

“It was amazing, it was a blessing,” Bernard said. “I’ll take the positive out of this — we lost the game, nobody likes losing, I hate losing — but just to be out there playing the game after three long months, I’m blessed, I’m thankful, I’m happy with the way I came out [after] only three weeks of practice.”

On account of that shortened ramp-up, Whittingham noted that Bernard was not in peak physical condition, as evidenced by him gaining only 31 yards on nine carries.

Still, his six-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, in which he went airborne to try and avoid the oncoming defender, was quite the moment.

“We’re driving down the field and I’m just hoping coach leaves me in — this is what I’ve been waiting for. If I get in the end zone, I’m gonna go crazy,” Bernard said. “… I saw the cutback, jumped over him, and I felt everything release off my shoulders. And when I got to the sideline, it just all came out, tears were flowing.”

The Utes were thrilled to have him return — for the bowl game and beyond.

“We’re excited he’s coming back next year, as well, and he’s gonna be part of what we do next year, and an integral part of what we do next year,” said Whittingham. “He brings a lot to the table.”