Holiday Bowl preview notebook: Fitzgerald swats down Green Bay Packers rumors; Utah quarterback situation remains unclear


Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

Pat Fitzgerald speaks to the media on Sunday, one day ahead of the Holiday Bowl.

Cole Paxton, Gameday Editor


SAN DIEGO — Pat Fitzgerald didn’t appear to spend much time on Twitter on Sunday morning.

As stories popped up reporting that the Green Bay Packers want to interview Fitzgerald for their head coaching vacancy, the Northwestern coach, speaking alongside Utah coach Kyle Whittingham ahead of Monday’s Holiday Bowl, expressed surprise about the latest developments.

“About me?” Fitzgerald asked. “Oh really? “You sure it’s not Kyle?”

He quickly added: “I don’t talk about rumors, number one, and hashtag Go Cats. How does that sound?”

Fitzgerald, NU’s 13th-year head coach, has drawn interest from several major college football programs and some NFL teams in the past. The Packers were rumored to have interest in Fitzgerald shortly after firing Mike McCarthy midseason, but reports Sunday suggested team CEO Mark Murphy — who elevated Fitzgerald to the head job at NU as athletic director in 2006 — would attempt to schedule an interview after the bowl game here.

Wildcats comfortable as bowl underdogs again

No. 22 NU (8-5, 8-1 Big Ten) arrived in San Diego in a familiar position: the underdogs.

No. 17 Utah (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) was a 7-point favorite as of midday Sunday, marking the third time in four years the Cats were at least one-score underdogs in their postseason contest. NU was demolished by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl three years ago, but sprung a major upset of Pittsburgh in the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl as heavy underdogs.

“We’ve played some pretty darn good teams (in bowls). Here we go again,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s nothing new to us.”

The Cats are also chasing history on Monday. A win would give NU a third consecutive bowl victory for the first time in school history, and just the fifth such triumph for the program.

If the past two victories are any indication — a 31-24 defeat of Pittsburgh and a 24-23 win over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl last year that came down to the final minute — the Cats’ recipe for success could be in a contested, see-saw affair.

“We’ve found a way to get it done. They’ve not necessarily been very pretty,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve made plenty of mistakes, that happens in the postseason when you’ve had that much time off. We found a way to win.”

Fitzgerald sees common trends between programs

The Wildcats and Utes enter the game on similar trajectories — division champions who thrived late in the season to reach their conference title games, only to fall to more established programs — but the parallels run far deeper, Fitzgerald said.

“We’re very similar from a standpoint that both teams have overcome a ton of adversity from injuries,” he said. “To see the way younger guys have stepped up on their tape, as you continue to watch, they just kept getting better and better.”

The common threads extend to the coaches. Whittingham was promoted to Utah head coach in 2005, a year before Fitzgerald took over in Evanston. Both were linebackers in their playing days and coached the position before taking over as head coaches.

Though the two teams may be different schematically, that shared background could lead to a defensive battle on Monday.

“Both of us have neck roll in our blood,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to play the game the right way. Usually it’s a line of scrimmage type game when you play teams like us.”

Whittingham mum on Huntley’s status

The tenor of the game could also depend heavily on who lines up under center for the Utes. Junior starter Tyler Huntley was ruled out for the year after breaking his collarbone in early November, but he has returned to practice and his status remains unclear for Monday’s contest.

“He looks great. Still unknown really about tomorrow,” Whittingham said. “If he’s allowed to go, he’s ready to go. By all definitions, that’s a game-time decision.”

The ramifications are significant: Huntley completed 64 percent of his passes and threw 12 touchdowns to six interceptions in nine games. Backup Jason Shelley, a redshirt freshman, has thrown four interceptions to three scores, and Utah’s offense scored just 3 points in his last start against Washington in the Pac-12 title game.

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