SALT LAKE CTY — It’s possible Kyle Whittingham will deliver the final answer on his quarterback situation, Friday after practice. Until now, he’s been as inscrutable as Stonehenge.
Tyler Huntley’s shoulder injury is the mystery of the month, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to him. Two weeks ago, the Ute quarterback told media, “If I’m cleared, I will play … I will start” in Monday’s Holiday Bowl.
Yet Whittingham said last week he wasn’t going to announce his starting quarterback until … whenever.
“No reason to tip our hand if you don’t have to,” Whittingham said.
He has listed Huntley and Jason Shelley as co-starters for the game against Northwestern.
“There’s two things I’m good at,” Whittingham told reporters. “Being vague and that other thing.”
Here’s a not-so-vague opinion from the peanut gallery: Unless Huntley isn’t healthy enough, the Utes should start him against Northwestern. Once upon a time, a backup quarterback started against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl and Whittingham suffered the only postseason loss of his career.
In 2010, Terrance Cain played in place of injured Jordan Wynn. That game ended in an embarrassing 26-3 loss, in which the Utes gained only 200 total yards. Just 93 of those yards were from passes.
It wasn’t the Mountain West Conference swan song they envisioned. The next year they joined Pac-12.
Backup quarterback Jon Hays started in the 2011 Sun Bowl and picked his way to a 30-27 win over Georgia Tech. He had come on after Wynn was injured early that season, so by the time the bowl game arrived, Hays technically wasn’t a backup.
In Monday’s Holiday Bowl, a healthy Huntley should get the call — and not merely because starters aren’t supposed to lose their jobs via injury. Huntley’s passing efficiency this year is 140.08, compared to Shelley’s 118.00. His completion percentage is 64 percent to Shelley’s 57.7. He has throw for more than twice as many yards and four times as many touchdowns. Huntley is averaging 91 more passing and 15 more rushing yards. Lastly, Huntley’s touchdown-to-interception ratio is 12-6; Shelley’s is 3-4.
Shelley has a slight edge in rushing yards per carry, 3.0 to 2.8.
None of this means Shelley has failed. His record is 3-1 as a starter, compared to Huntley’s 6-3 this season. Shelley seldom gets rattled. That’s one of the reasons Huntley should start if he’s healthy enough. The unflappable Shelley is good to go, either as a starter or a backup.
Huntley has scarcely any experience coming off the bench.
“It’s not my call, it’s the coaches’ call, but I prepare like I’m going to start every game,” Shelley said. “So if I don’t start, or if I do start, it doesn’t matter to me. I just get ready for when my name is called.”
After leading Utah to wins over Oregon and Colorado, Shelley struggled against BYU before leading the team back from a 20-0 halftime deficit. In the conference title game, the Utes were unable to generate any touchdowns and gained only 188 yards. The Utes have been unable to find the end zone in seven of their last nine quarters.
Shelley has the talent to start at many schools. He’s athletic enough to vault over an almost upright BYU player, and to throw a 61-yard scoring pass against Colorado, but humble enough to admit he has room to improve.
“I give myself like a C-plus or a B-minus,” Shelley said. “I know what I can do. I know exactly my skill set. I’m happy with the wins; wins are always great. But I know I can do a lot better, so I give myself like a B-minus.”14 comments on this story
He gets an A-plus for honesty.
Shelley also gets high marks for keeping his sense of humor. Discussing whether both quarterbacks might play in the bowl game, he said, “I don’t know. Maybe if we do, it’s a secret and I can’t give it out.”
He gave a short laugh, then continued, “Yeah, it would be fun, both of us playing. I’ve just got to be ready.”
That readiness is exactly why a healthy Huntley would be an easy choice to start, and Shelley a quick and viable solution off the bench. There’s no mystery to that.