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Utah’s Tyler Huntley could return before upcoming bowl game

FILE PHOTO (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY — Junior quarterback Tyler Huntley may not be lost for the season after all.

That’s according to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who said Monday that there’s a “big chance” his starting quarterback returns for whichever bowl game Utah is selected to play in later this year.

“He’s getting very close,” Whittingham said at his weekly press conference. “Depending on the timing of the bowl, there’s a strong possibility that he’ll be ready.”

Huntley has returned to the team’s meetings, Whittingham added, and is “around constantly” as he mentors backup quarterback Jason Shelley, who is undefeated in his three starts since Huntley sustained an injury to his non-throwing shoulder against Arizona State.

Huntley was expected to miss the remainder of the season due to reportedly breaking his collarbone, but with more than a month until Utah’s eventual bowl game, Whittingham believes there’s a high likelihood that Utah will return its starting quarterback in time to close out the season.

Utah will likely play a bowl game sometime around New Year’s Day, with the prize being a trip to the Rose Bowl should the Utes claim a win over the Washington Huskies in the Pac-12 Championship game. If the Huskies beat the Utes, Utah could play as early as Dec. 28 in the Alamo Bowl.

It’s still unknown what Huntley’s timetable looks like or whether he will actually play, but it potentially gives Utah options and a deeper quarterback pool in the postseason. Prior to his injury, Huntley had the offense humming along as the team scored more than 40 points in four-straight weeks.

Regardless of Huntley’s status, Utah has been in good shape with Shelley under center. In his three starts, the redshirt freshman has gained valuable experience and found ways to lift Utah to a victory, including two come-from-behind wins over Colorado and BYU. Shelley faces his toughest task Friday in the Pac-12 Championship game against the Huskies, who claimed a 21-7 win over the Utes in Week 3 of play.

“He’s done a great job taking care of the football ever since he became the starter,” Whittingham said.

Utah ready to take over the postseason

For Utah’s first-ever appearance in the Pac-12 Championship game, the University of Utah expects a large crowd to take over Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Mark Harlan, Utah’s director of athletics, said Monday that “we’re anticipating a really big turnout.”

The university was allotted 3,500 tickets to sell for the game. And as of Monday afternoon, Harland said they’ve nearly sold out and that they may already be gone by the time he checks again. The tailgate event that was planned has already sold out, Harlan said, and the university is looking to add more spots.

“We want everyone to finish our allotment out, but I think the Utes are going to show up as they have all year.”

With such high interest in the championship game, Harlan said he’s not worried about fans failing to travel to the bowl game, as well. He said he believes fans will turn out to support the football program, as they have all season.

“I think this group is committed,” he said of the fans. “I think a lot of people have been planning their holiday around whatever bowl we go to. Certainly how fast we’ve sold these tickets. I’m not worried about any of that.”

Regardless of the bowl destination, Harlan said the university will accept and represent the state well. He said he’s not worried about other schools jumping Utah in the pecking order should Utah lose the championship game. He said several bowl representatives have met with the university and know how well Utah travels.

“I think we have a lot to offer,” Harlan said. “We’ll be talking to all the bowl directors and we’ll work with the conference. I think what we’ve done this year, the story we have to tell is pretty compelling, and our fan base travels.”