Bowl games are often about motivation. That might not have been the difference in the 2023 Las Vegas Bowl, but the Northwestern Wildcats weren't disappointed to be there.
Utah had visions of making the College Football Playoff or at least winning another Pac-12 championship. However, after Cam Rising was lost for the season with injury, Utah football never reached its ceiling.
Northwestern football, on the other hand, broke through its perceived ceiling more than any other team in college football. The Wildcats, with interim-now-turned-head-coach David Braun leading the way, exceeded expectations this season.
That's putting it mildly. It wouldn't have surprised anyone if Northwestern didn't win a game in the Big Ten. The Wildcats won just one game last season,. They also fired long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Yet, Braun was up to the task and his defense, as well as their penchant for takeaways, led to an ugly, but impressive, 14-7 win in the Las Vegas Bowl for Northwestern football.
That puts a wrap on an 8-5 season for the Wildcats, which nobody saw coming. Ben Bryant was 22-of-34 for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Yet, the defense was the story. Utah finished with just 211 yards. Northwestern football held the Utes to just 72 rushing yards to win a game as nearly a touchdown underdog.
Maybe we should have expected it. I certainly expected Northwestern to have a good shot of covering the spread, but after five sacks and three takeaways, Northwestern's win was as impressive as any so far this bowl season.
Northwestern isn't a program that many are talking about going into the new 18-team Big Ten. However, after the way the Wildcats finished the season, teams should ignore them at their own risk moving forward. Braun seems like the real deal and it's suddenly an exciting time to be a Northwestern football fan.