San Diego • Utah and Northwestern will kick off Monday afternoon in the California sunshine, playing one day earlier and 130 miles south of their preferred time and place for a bowl game.
The Rose Bowl practically was within sight of the Utes and Wildcats a month ago, playing in conference championship games that offered them the opportunity to qualify for one of college football’s most glamorous events. They both lost.
Yet as coaches Kyle Whittingham of Utah and Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern appeared at a news conference on a spectacular Sunday morning in a hotel fronting the San Diego Marina, their programs hardly looked like losers. Yeah, San Diego will have to do.
Imagining the stories from Pasadena is irresistible, though. Whittingham would have faced former Ute coach Urban Meyer in Meyer's final game as Ohio State's coach, after Whittingham spent part of his childhood living about seven miles from the Rose Bowl, before his family moved to Provo.
From a Northwestern perspective, the theme would have been Fitzgerald's coaching in the Rose Bowl, after helping the Wildcats get there as a player but not taking the field himself, due to injury.
Oh, well. If the subject of Rose Bowl remorse was inevitable Sunday, the coaches were not about to play along in this setting.
“You get what you earn,” Fitzgerald said.
Not being in Pasadena “gives us something to shoot for in the future,” Whittingham said.
And the Holiday Bowl represents a reward for Utah’s first Pac-12 South championship, as an upgrade over the Utes' previous postseason destinations of this decade. Even before losing to Washington in the conference title game, Utah administrators were pushing for the Holiday Bowl bid, just in case. Their proactive approach was successful and should produce a strong turnout of Ute fans Monday to conclude the school’s 125th year of football.
The Holiday Bowl is the football equivalent of the consolation games the NCAA Tournament stopped staging long ago, but it is a good matchup between tough, defense-oriented teams that are a lot alike. Just look at the coaches, wearing comparable sports jackets and open collars for the news conference.
“Well, we’re told how to dress,” Whittingham clarified.
Monday’s biggest contrast? Quarterbacking. Northwestern senior Clayton Thorson, who badly injured his knee in last December’s Music City Bowl, returned to the field this season and will conclude his Wildcat career with a 53rd start Monday. Ute redshirt freshman Jason Shelley is expected to make his fifth start, with junior Tyler Huntley requiring “a miracle” to be cleared to play, Whittingham said, eight weeks after Huntley suffered a broken collarbone.
So the Ute offense, with Troy Taylor calling the plays one last time before moving to Sacramento State as head coach, likely will have its November look on the last day of December. Shelley, running back Armand Shyne and a cast of receivers that will be missing No. 1 target Britain Covey will have to perform better than they did against Washington. Covey had knee surgery this month; star linebacker Chase Hansen has only a “minimal chance” of playing Monday, Whittingham said.
Utah can only hope that Washington's great defense was the cause of problems that can be fixed Monday, although Northwestern brings one of the Big Ten's better defenses.
Having admired the Wildcats from a distance, Whittingham once sent some of his assistants to the Chicago area to study Fitzgerald’s program in the spring. That’s common practice in the coaching profession among schools that don’t usually face each other. “When they came back, they said it was like a mirror image of how we run things, how they run things — just the energy, the structure, the type of practices they have,” Whittingham said. “From what I get from my staff, there’s a great deal of similarities. I take that as a compliment. If we can be like these guys, that’s a big positive.”
Fitzgerald already had praised Whittingham's program, while bonding with him as former linebackers. But he saved the label of “pretty frickin' good” for Ohio State, the team that kept Northwestern out of the Rose Bowl. The Wildcats were within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, before OSU pulled away to a 45-24 victory in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1.
The previous night, Utah had come even closer to beating Washington. The Utes were driving in a 3-3 game late in the third quarter, when Shelley's pass bounced off receiver Siaosi Mariner's hands and leg and into the arms of Washington's Byron Murphy, who returned the interception 66 yards for the game's only touchdown.
Shelley will need a bounce-back game Monday, in what's being framed as an old-fashioned football battle. Asked for a key matchup, Whittingham said the winner would be “the team that controls the line of scrimmage.”
That’s exactly how he likes it. The same, of course, is true of Fitzgerald.
Utah vs. Northwestern
At SDCCU Stadium, San Diego
Kickoff: 5 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 9-4; Northwestern 8-5.
Series history: Tied, 1-1.
Last meeting: Utah 42, Northwestern 0 (1981).
About the Utes: Utah beat the Big Ten’s Indiana in the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl, in a rare case like this year when the Utes went into their bowl game after a loss. … Whittingham said filling his offensive coordinator vacancy is “job one, as soon as this game’s over” and that he plans to conduct interviews in January. Yahoo Sports reported that Whittingham had interest in former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who will become Mississippi’s offensive coordinator. … The Utes played regularly in San Diego in the school’s Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West eras and appeared in the 2007 and ’09 Poinsettia Bowls in the former home of the San Diego Chargers.
About the Wildcats: A win over Utah would be their first in 91 years; the Wildcats defeated Utah 13-6 in 1927 in the only meeting prior to the 1981 game. That matchup in Wayne Howard’s last year as Utah’s coach, with Ken Vierra as the Ute quarterback. … Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald was the unanimous choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year. … The Wildcats' primary players to watch are freshman running back Isaiah Bowser and sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher.