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December 31, 2018

Utah and Northwestern would love to be in this week’s Rose Bowl, but they like this matchup in San Diego.


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.

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.

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.

There’s no getting around it — huge advantage to the Utes. Matt Gay might be the most talented kicker in the country. Mitch Wishnowsky might be the most talented punter in the country. Both could have long NFL careers. Special teams might be where the game swings.

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