Dan Mullen, Andy Ludwig and Norm Chow each looked brilliant, upon exiting the Utah football program. Troy Taylor can only hope his farewell is as memorable as those of other Ute play-callers who knew they were headed to different schools.
Taylor chose to complete his two-year Utah tenure in Monday’s Holiday Bowl vs. Northwestern, two weeks after being named Sacramento State’s head coach. He’s departing after having improved Utah’s offense enough to help win the school’s first Pac-12 South championship, but with the lasting impression — until next week, anyway — being an 188-yard production in a 10-3 loss to Washington in the conference title game at Santa Clara, Calif.
How will Taylor be remembered? He’s credited with stabilizing an offense that beat Oregon, Colorado and BYU with a second-string quarterback (Jason Shelley) and running back (Armand Shyne), but failed to earn a Rose Bowl bid. His legacy will be shaped one last time in the Holiday Bowl, after coach Kyle Whittingham said he hoped Taylor’s transition would enable him to call the plays in San Diego.
“He's done an awesome job,” offensive line coach Jim Harding said in late November. “Obviously, had some adversity early on in the Pac-12 season, but in how he's handled that situation in addition to having to get a quarterback ready to win these last two [conference games], he's done a phenomenal job.”
One variable Monday is the QB staffing; Utah has not announced whether former starter Tyler Huntley is medically cleared to play after his collarbone injury. Regardless, a Ute offense that loses only three starting linemen is determined to perform well as 2018 ends.
“We've still got our confidence,” receiver Samson Nacua said. “It was sad what happened out there in the championship game, but … we learned from that game and we're coming in now with more confidence in these practices that we've been having.”
UTAH VS. NORTHWESTERN
When • Monday, 5 p.m. MST
TV • FS1
The Utes will be missing No. 1 receiver Britain Covey, who injured his knee vs. Washington. Taylor will have to find other targets for his quarterback, while facing one of the Big Ten’s better defenses. It adds up to a significant challenge for Taylor, in hopes of finishing his Ute tenure the way Mullen, Ludwig and Chow did. Aaron Roderick even directed a drive to a game-wining field goal in the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl vs. Indiana, before being fired two days later.
Mullen called Utah’s plays for the first time in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl vs. Pittsburgh, as offensive coordinator Mike Sanford missed the game after becoming UNLV’s head coach. Mullen, the Utes' quarterback coach, was headed to Florida with coach Urban Meyer, and he prepared the offense well and produced a 467-yard effort vs. Pittsburgh as Alex Smith threw four touchdown passes.
Four years later, Ludwig remained involved with Utah through the Fiesta Bowl, after having taken a job at Kansas State (he ended up at California later that winter). Ludwig surprised Alabama with a no-huddle scheme that launched the Utes toward a 31-17 upset in the Sugar Bowl, with Brian Johnson passing for 336 yards and three touchdowns.
Chow’s last game as Utah’s offensive coordinator was just as impressive, in its own way, before he moved to Hawaii as head coach. After regrouping that season with fill-in quarterback Jon Hays, Chow needed Hays to lead a fourth-quarter comeback from a 24-10 deficit — partly resulting from an interception that Georgia Tech returned for a touchdown. Hays delivered two TD passes in the fourth quarter and John White ran 8 yards on a draw play for the winning touchdown on third and goal in overtime.
Taylor would love to have an ending like any of those. Whittingham has credited him with upgrading Utah's passing game, and his work with Huntley and Shelley has produced improvement. Partly because of the offense's meager effort against Washington, though, Taylor's statistics are roughly the same as those of Roderick, his predecessor. The Utes rank seventh in the Pac-12 in total offense, averaging 413 yards.
Taylor’s hallmark is the Utes' 30.8-point average in regular-season conference games, easily the program’s highest mark of the Pac-12 era. A 30-point showing against Northwestern just about would guarantee a Holiday Bowl victory. The first checkpoint is topping the three points the Utes managed the last time they played in California.