SAN DIEGO — In a season that didn’t go as planned, redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Shelley was both Utah’s hero and a young player seemingly overwhelmed by the demands of leading a Pac-12 team.
Nothing tested his mettle more since taking over as the Utes' starting quarterback four games ago than during the second half of the Holiday Bowl Monday night.
“I’m usually one who can get over things pretty quick, you can’t change the past, just move on,” he said after Utah lost the rain-soaked New Year’s Eve game to Northwestern 31-20. “We just ended up beating ourselves up.”
Shelley played well in the first half, leading Utah to an impressive 20-3 lead. At halftime, he was 13-for-20 with 155 yards, two touchdowns and 52 yards rushing.
Utah dominated both offensively and defensively.
And then, everything seemed to go wrong, starting with Shelley throwing the first of two interceptions on Utah’s opening drive.
“We were just beating ourselves up,” he said of what the third quarter felt like. “We were trying to correct the mistakes, but there was nothing we could do. …We couldn’t overcome them. The mistakes just kept popping up.”
About eight minutes later, Utah looked poised to score, as Shelley led the team down the field to the Northwestern 6-yard line. With first and goal, Shelley was sacked and fumbled the ball. Northwestern’s Jared McGee, scooped up the ball and ran 82 yards for the Wildcats second touchdown in the third quarter.
Jaylen Dixon fumbled on Utah’s next series, leading to the Wildcats’ third score in eight minutes and giving Northwestern its first lead of the game — 24-20. Shelley threw another interception to end the quarter after Northwestern had scored a fourth touchdown and led 31-20.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a quarter quite like that,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. He described it later as an “avalanche.”
Shelley said he had a similar experience when he was in high school when his team led 28-0 at halftime. Unlike Monday night, they held on for the win but it took three overtimes. He shrugged off the wet weather being an issue, pointing out they've played in both rain and snow this season and earned wins.
Shelley said there isn’t anything to do but learn from the painful experience.
“We’ve just got to keep playing,” he said. “Even after all of those turnovers, we were still only down 11 points. The game would have been a lot different if we could cut those out.”
Whittingham said the season’s starter, Tyler Huntley, wasn’t cleared to play after X-rays about 10 days ago but added that Huntley had lost some weight and it wouldn’t have been wise to let the junior play. That didn’t worry Whittingham, however, as Shelley had lost only one game as a starter: the Pac-12 Championship.7 comments on this story
“He looked good early,” Whittingham said. “Jason was doing a good job, taking care of the football. We did have the one fumble in the first half. Then the second half we just, for whatever reason, weren't as sharp. That's an understatement, saying we weren't as sharp in the second half. …Jason struggled at times, like everyone else did on offense at times.”
Shelley said he’d need some time and perspective to be able to articulate what he could take from such a disappointing performance. Still, he said everything he’s experienced will help him next season.
“It was a huge roller coaster,” he said of the 2018 season. “A lot of ups and downs. I’m ready for next year.”