LAS VEGAS — It’s always nice to see new faces along with old friends.
Which is what the gathering at Allegiant Stadium was Saturday. As locals were navigating the under-constructed streets of Las Vegas trying to get their last-minute Christmas shopping done, a bunch of visitors from Salt Lake City and the Chicagoland area dropped in for three-plus hours of football as Utah and Northwestern squared off in the Las Vegas Bowl.
It wasn’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. But the guys from Evanston did enough things right to come away with the Rossi Ralenkotter Trophy, 14-7.
The Wildcats nursed a 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter following a second-quarter score. But Utah backup quarterback Luke Bottari moved his team into range, starter Bryson Barnes returned and Micah Bernard scored from six yards out to tie it 7-7.
Northwestern answered with 6:19 to go as Ben Bryant found Bryce Kirtz for a 19-yard TD. Bryant had also been forced to leave the game earlier in the fourth quarter but returned to rally the Wildcats. Twice the Northwestern defense stopped Utah on 4th-and-short situations and that, along with limiting the Utes to just 211 yards total offense, ultimately proved to be the difference.
“These guys kept showing up every day,” said Northwestern coach David Braun, who took over in July and got this team to finish 8-5 and a bowl win. “I’m so proud of them.”
The Utes had been here before. Several times in fact. This was Utah’s sixth appearance (they were 4-1 prior to Saturday’s game) and Kyle Whittingham has won it twice before.
For Northwestern, it was the Wildcats’ first appearance in Las Vegas thanks in large part to the Big Ten’s tie-in to the game. And they go to do something most visitors can’t claim — they left Vegas winners.
“No excuses. Congratulations to Northwestern,” Whittingham said. “We weren’t prepared to play. It always hurts to lose.”
That this game still exists and continues to grow is thanks in large part to the perseverance of the community, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and ESPN. There were some dark days early on when the game was struggling to find a footing out at Sam Boyd Stadium and finding a sponsor was difficult. The LVCVA saved the game by agreeing to underwrite the guarantees to the competing teams for a couple of years and eventually, a sponsor was found and the Las Vegas Bowl began to put down some sturdy community roots. In ding so, it avoided the ignominious fate of such postseason games like the Gotham Bowl, the Garden State Bowl, the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl and the California Raisin Bowl.
In its 31 games, the Las Vegas Bowl has not only managed to survive, it has helped the local economy. Heading into this year’s contest, the game has generated close to $400 million in economic impact on the city. It has returned to ABC as its television partner and the three-hour infomercial for the city remains a valuable marketing tool.
Currently, the Las Vegas Bowl plays in a state-of-the-art NFL stadium that is climate controlled and is great for watching football, not to mention conveniently located near the Las Vegas Strip for out-o-town visitors to get to. No more having to wait an hour or so for taxis and rideshares out at Sam Boyd Stadium following the game.
How good is Allegiant Stadium? The College Football Playoff is considering playing its championship game here in the future. So perhaps getting the Las Vegas Bowl as one of its quarterfinal or semifinal round games as the playoff expands from its current four to 12 would be a giant leap forward from what is already a solid, established bowl game. The Las Vegas Bowl is the 16th oldest continuous bowl game played. It may not be the grandaddy of them all, but it’s not the black sheep of the bowl family either.
As it is, the Las Vegas Bowl will be changing because the Pac-12 is no more. So Utah made a dubious sort of history here Saturday by being the last Pac-12 representative in the game. The Utes are heading to the Big 12 and perhaps we will see a deal struck with Brett Yormark’s league to take the Pac-12’s place and go against either the Big Ten or the Southeastern Conference every year until the CFP puts one of its playoff games here. So perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Whittingham and Co.
You’d have to think the CFP folks would want to bring a first-round playoff game here to Las Vegas. The men’s Final Four is coming here in 2028 and since the CFP does whatever it wants, it’s not going to need the NCAA’s tacit approval anyway.
But credit to John Saccenti, the executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl since 2014 along with his staff for not only keeping the game alive here, but growing it and making it an important part of the local sports scene.
There may have only been 20,897 here Saturday. But a year or two from now, it could be a very different story. And instead of Utah and Northwestern, we could be watching Alabama and Michigan trying to get to the CFP semis or the national championship game. And wouldn’t that be cool?