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Banged-up No. 20 Utah faces Northwestern in Holiday Bowl

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

By BERNIE WILSON

AP Sports Writer

SAN DIEGO (AP) It will be hard for Kyle Whittingham to ever top his experience in the Holiday Bowl.

Now the coach of No. 20 Utah, Whittingham played for BYU in the first four Holiday Bowls, from 1978-81. His best memories are from 1980, when he chased Eric Dickerson and Craig James all night and then watched one of the craziest plays in postseason history, Jim McMahon's 41-yard desperation heave that Clay Brown caught in the end zone as time expired for a 46-45 victory over SMU.

"To be able to come back some, what, 40 years later, that is pretty incredible," Whittingham said about Monday night's matchup between the Utes (9-4) and Northwestern (8-5).

But Whittingham's not here for the nostalgia. The Utes are extremely good at winning bowl games and he wants that to continue, although they'll be missing some offensive stars and perhaps their leading tackler. The Utes are looking for their 15th win in their last 16 bowl games dating to the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl. Whittingham is 11-1 (92 percent) in the postseason, the best bowl winning percentage in NCAA history.

"Each successive group wants to uphold the tradition, not be the group that lets the previous guys down," Whittingham said. "There's been literally hundreds of players that have amassed this bowl record. There's been a lot of hard work, a lot of classes that have come through here. It's almost self-perpetuating that the current class wants to make sure they uphold their part of the bargain and get it done."

Utah has won five straight bowl games since its last postseason loss, 26-3 to Boise State in the 2010 Las Vegas Bowl.

Northwestern is looking for its third straight bowl win under coach Pat Fitzgerald. There's a chance this will be his last game with the Wildcats. The Green Bay Packers reportedly want to interview him for their head coaching job.

Utah is here after losing to Washington in the Pac-12 title game while Northwestern lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

Here are some things to watch in the Holiday Bowl:

UTES INJURIES: Utah junior running back Zack Moss suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 7 and sophomore receiver Britain Covey will miss the game after suffering a knee injury in the Pac-12 championship game loss to Washington. Additionally, junior quarterback Tyler Huntley will be a game-time decision after missing the last four games with a broken collarbone. Although Huntley has resumed practicing, "It would take a miracle" for him to play, Whittingham said. On top of that, linebacker Chase Hansen, who has a team-high 114 tackles, has a "minimal chance" of playing due to a hip injury.

CLAYTON THORSON: The senior will start his 53rd straight game for the Wildcats, the most by a quarterback in Big Ten history and fourth overall. Already the program's all-time winningest quarterback at 35-17, he needs 91 yards passing to break Brett Basanez's school record of 10,580. "We're just so proud and thankful for him," Fitzgerald said. "He's been through a lot. It's interesting. People that follow our program, here is a guy that is the all-time winningest quarterback in program history, taken us now to four straight bowl games, led us to the Big Ten championship game, here to the Holiday Bowl. Outside of our program, I don't know if a lot of people know who he is."

SIMILARITIES: The teams are coached by former linebackers, both of whom expect the game to be determined on the line of scrimmage. "Both of us have neck roll in our blood, you know, we were both linebackers, we want to play the game the right way," Fitzgerald said. "Usually it's a line of scrimmage type game when you play teams like us."

WILDCATS FINALE? Fitzgerald deftly dodged questions about reports that the Green Bay Packers want to interview him. "I don't talk about rumors, No. 1, and, hashtag GoCats. How does that sound?"

BOWL MEMORIES: Whittingham played fullback in the first Holiday Bowl and then linebacker in the next three. "Against SMU, I made 22 tackles; 21 of them were about 10 yards-plus downfield chasing Eric Dickerson and Craig James," he said. "The stats were padded, I guess, because I was looking at their rear ends. That was the game we won in the last second there, Hail Mary pass. Two Catholics connected on a Hail Mary at a Mormon school to win the game. That was interesting."

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Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson

Updated December 31, 2018

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