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Northwestern outlasts Utah in defense-first Las Vegas Bowl

Say this for the Las Vegas Bowl: Nobody will be cutting up its film as an example of offensive efficiency.

Maybe to teach some serious defense, though.

Northwestern from the Big Ten Conference won this not-so-thrilling matchup 14-7 over Utah of the Pac-12 before an announced crowd of 20,897 at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday.

It was a struggle all evening for either team to produce any consistent attack. The punters got far too much work in for those witnessing things.

As in a combined 14 punts.

A 14-7 final is the lowest scoring Las Vegas Bowl since Utah beat USC 10-6 in 2011.

“It’s tough to win a football game when you score seven points and lose the turnover battle 3-0,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Not a good formula. But give them credit. They played hard. They were well-prepared. Thought our defense played pretty well — kept us in the game. Just didn’t have enough in the tank on offense. Couldn’t get much going.”

Northwestern took its 14-7 lead with 6:19 left in the game, when Wildcats quarterback Ben Bryant — who had left earlier with injury — hit wide receiver Bryce Kirtz from 19 yards out.

A 13-yard scramble from Bryant with 1:37 remaining clinched things.

One wondered, for a while, if anyone would score. If that 3-0 win by the Vikings over the Raiders on this same field Dec. 10 would prove far more entertaining than the bowl game. It almost did over the first 30 minutes.

“It really hurts,” Utah linebacker Karene Reid said. “But we win and lose as a team. It goes both ways. Team loss.”

Bryant — named the bowl’s Most Valuable Player — finished with 222 passing yards and two touchdowns.

Neither team reached 300 yards in total offense and Utah threw for just 73.

Defense? The teams combined for eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

The score could have been more lopsided in Northwestern’s favor. The Wildcats had a first-and-goal from the Utah 7 in the second quarter after Joseph’s second pick. Northwestern advanced the ball to the 1 after three run plays, but Bryant’s pass on fourth down fell incomplete in the end zone.

Wildcats kicker Jack Olsen also missed 51- and 40-yard field-goal attempts.

But when winning time arrived, Bryant made the plays needed to give Northwestern its fourth straight win to end the season. This, a program that saw former longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald fired in July amid allegations of widespread hazing within the program. David Braun led the program so well coming out of the scandal that he was promoted from interim to full-time coach last month.

“Going into this year, most people wrote us off and said we’d win one or two games max,” Bryant said. “Just goes to show you how resilient we are and any adversity we face we’re going to face it head on. I’m just so happy to be with these guys and finish it off this way.”

Things were ugly offensively early in the game.

Utah (8-5) couldn’t get anything going. It totaled just 59 yards and four first downs in the first half. The Utes were also 1-of-7 on third down and quarterback Bryson Barnes threw a pair of interceptions. Northwestern senior defensive back Jaheem Joseph had both.

Barnes struggled mightily before intermission, completing just four of his eight passing attempts for 10 yards. Utah ran 28 plays in the first half and only one gained more than 5 yards.

Things were a little better for the Wildcats (8-5). They broke a scoreless tie late in the first half with an eight-play, 78-yard scoring drive. Bryant hit wide receiver Cam Johnson for a touchdown with 1:20 left in the second quarter.

“If we’re not playing our best ball at the end of the year, something is wrong,” Braun said. “We just need to continue challenging ourselves as a staff.

“What I did know is what I saw every single day from this group was a truth that I wanted everyone to know about — who they are, what they stand for … What doesn’t fade is the way you remember your student-athletes in that locker room.”

What kind of game was it?

The third-quarter drives between the two teams went like this: Punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt.

Utah did at least start to move the ball heading into the fourth. The Utes covered 60 yards in eight plays to tie the score at 7-7 with 12:38 remaining. Running back Micah Bernard scored from 6 yards out after missing all but one game with an injury this season.

“Nothing out of character (for Northwestern) or new schemes,” Whittingham said. “Played their gaps and tackled well and made some plays on the ball. They beat us up front. Typically, we own the line of scrimmage. That was not the case.”

Contact sports columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on X.

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