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2023 Vegas Bowl

David Becker/AP

Northwestern wide receiver Bryce Kirtz (17) celebrates after his touchdown reception during the second half of the Las Vegas Bowl NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Updated 1 hour, 27 minutes ago

Having just checked back into the game Saturday night at Allegiant Stadium, Northwestern quarterback Ben Bryant lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone.

It looked like no Wildcat receiver would be near the ball at first but it floated so high and for so long that receiver Bryce Kirtz was able to get under it. With his head tilted back over his shoulder, Kirtz hauled in the 19-yard pass for a touchdown.

“We had a little slant-and-go there, and (Kirtz) got a little jammed up on it,” Bryant said after the game. “It didn’t really look like it was going to be there but I trusted him to win through that collision. I put it up for him and he made a play. It was awesome.”

The memorable connection with 6:19 to go proved to be the game-winner for the Wildcats.

Northwestern 14, Utah 7.

The Wildcats capped a memorable season at Allegiant Stadium with the program’s fifth straight bowl game victory dating back to the 2016 season.

This was the most improbable one, and not because Northwestern came into the game as a touchdown underdog but rather how far it came dating back to the start of the season. A hazing scandal rocked the Wildcats’ program, and resulted in the firing of coach Pat Fitzgerald weeks before the season.

Defensive coordinator David Braun, only hired months prior, was promoted to interim coach and galvanized the team en route to what now goes down as an 8-5 season.  

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

The famed Las Vegas betting market was among the group expecting little out of the Wildcats as their preseason over/under win total was just three games. But they eclipsed it by a national-best 4.5 games in the regular season, and didn’t seem to harbor any ill will.

The team spoke highly of their weeklong stay locally preparing for the game — practicing at Bishop Gorman High and staying at Mandalay Bay — and even had a themed celebration planned after the first of two interceptions by defensive back Jaheem Joseph in the first half.

“It was like a day after, maybe the first practice after they announced we were coming out here to Vegas, it was like, ‘Bro, anybody we celebrate who catches a pick, we’ve got to hit the slot machine and cash out,’” Joseph explained. “Especially the secondary, we’ve been screaming, ‘Cash out,’ for the past three or four weeks.”

Defense ruled the night at Allegiant as the 2023 Las Vegas Bowl was the lowest scoring edition of the annual postseason game in more than 20 years — since Utah edged USC 10-6 in 2001.

The game proved competitive but sometimes challenging to watch.

Northwestern outgained Utah 291-211, but both offenses labored for the majority of the night. Special teams didn’t help the Wildcats either.

Kicker Jack Olsen missed a pair of first-half field goal attempts to keep the game close. Northwestern went into halftime with a 7-0 lead courtesy of a 12-yard touchdown pass from Bryant to Cam Johnson late in the second quarter.

The score came only after Northwestern failed to convert on a pair of short fields following Joseph’s takeaways.

Utah stopped Northwestern on third- and fourth-down from the 1-yard line on the drive following the second turnover.

“Things like that happen,” Bryant said. “You’re going to get stopped. That’s just part of the game. It takes a whole offense to come back and say, ‘We’re going to get it next time,’ and not hang our heads just because things aren’t going right. Thankfully we have a really good defense that’s going to hold down the fort and get the job done.”

Northwestern outplayed Utah defensively with five sacks and eight tackles for loss.

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes, who stuck with the team to play in the bowl game despite entering the transfer portal, was constantly under duress and completed eight of 13 passes for 55 yards on the night.

The Utes’ offense found its only rhythm of the night when he started taking off on scrambles to key a scoring drive that started late in the third quarter.

Running back Micah Bernard cut through the middle of the line for a 6-yard touchdown rush to tie the game at 7-7 near the start of the fourth quarter.

Northwestern answered two possessions later though, after another turnover on downs in between. The veteran Bryant came through for the Wildcats in spots where it mattered the most all year and did so again late in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The former Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan passer finished with 222 yards and two touchdowns on 23-for-34 passing. He was named the game’s most valuable player.

“We talk in our program frequently about the contrast between a warrior and a mercenary,” Braun said. “Warriors are purpose-driven. Their purpose is bigger than self. They’re willing to push through great lengths to serve their team and battle for their brothers and Ben Bryant has embodied that. That dude is a warrior.”

Braun said beating a team like the Utes, which had won back-to-back Pac-12 Championships at Allegiant before this year, showed the Wildcats could compete with any team.

He’s setting his goals for the program high as he pledged, “we’re going to build a team that can go find a way to win a Big Ten championship.”

But beyond that comment, Braun avoided looking too far into the future. Winning the Las Vegas Bowl was big enough for now, especially with all Northwestern had gone through this season.

“It would have been a Big Ten bummer not to cap this thing off the right way so I’m really happy our guys did,” Braun said.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or

Article written by #LasVegasSun