Utah vs West Virginia Preview and Prediction: Heart of Dallas Bowl
Utah vs West Virginia Preview
An offensive juggernaut versus one of the best defenses in the country. That is exactly what we have in this year’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The Mountaineers (7-5) have the nation’s 16th-rated offense and could be in dramatically different position had they converted last-drive opportunities against Virginia Tech and TCU.
The Utes (6-6) are more defensive-oriented and lost to the Pac 12’s top teams — Stanford, USC and Washington — by a combined seven points.
Utah does not lose bowl games, only one since Kyle Wittingham took over as coach 13 seasons ago. His record of 10-1 shows just how much he cares about the postseason, even if it’s not a major bowl.
Whittingham called Tuesday’s matchup at Cotton Bowl Stadium “huge for us and a great opportunity,” and safety Chase Hansen can attest to the intense preparation.
“It’s like another fall camp for us here,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s no joke. Whether you like it or hate it, we go out and work when you’re getting ready for a bowl game.”
West Virginia will be at a severe disadvantage as star QB Will Grier will not play in this game, already being ruled out by head coach Dana Holgorson. That means a drop-off from Grier’s 34 touchdown passes to sophomore Chris Chugunov’s two.
Utah has better news involving nine-game starter Tyler Huntley, whom Whittingham this week pronounced 100 percent ready.
Huntley offers versatility, having carried 143 times for 480 yards and four scores — all second most on the team. He’s completing 65 percent of his passes, though 15 touchdowns have been offset by 10 interceptions.
Utah relies more on their running game, Huntley is more dangerous with his feet than with his arm. The Utes also feature a great running back in Zach Moses who averages 5.3 yards per carry and on average, Utah runs the ball 40+ times per game.
“Their O-line is huge,” Holgorsen said. “Evidently, they are focused on recruiting the bigger guys up front.”
West Virginia might be bringing out a different style of their Air Raid offense with Grier sidelined. The Mountaineers were without Grier in their regular season finale and as a result we saw them run a wild cat type offense with running back Kennedy McCoy. The second-stringer carried 25 times for a season-high 137 yards.
His role will only continue to grow as 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford opted to skip the game in order to begin NFL draft preparations.
Ticket sales for West Virginia have been slow, given that the bowl is being played the day after Christmas and the team stumbled to back-to-back losses after Grier’s injury. Yet the seniors claim they’ve been locked in during practices and are excited to face a Pac-12 school.
Asked whether he views the matchup as a bookend to 2017 or propulsion for 2018, Holgorsen said, “I sure as heck would like for it to be both.” He referenced the Cactus Bowl victory over Arizona State two years ago as inciting West Virginia to a 10-win campaign the following season.
Whittingham views the bowl week as a means to reinforce his staff’s commitment to recruiting Texas. Most of Utah’s recent teams have featured double-digit contingencies of players from the Lone Star State, including 10 on the current roster.
“When I became the head coach, I knew how fertile that area was in Texas,” Whittingham said. “We had never really made it a primary area. It was always a secondary area for us in the years prior to me becoming the head coach. That’s fine, too. We had great success in California and in-state, obviously, in Utah.
“I’m not saying that that was a mistake, but when I became the head coach, we made it a priority to recruit Texas.”
The Mountaineers will be without their top quarterback and running back in this game–and they cannot rely on their defense to win them ball games. Add in the fact that Kyle Wittingham is one of the best bowl coaches of this era and you can see why Utah should win this game.
LINE: -6.5 Utah
Utah 31 West Virginia 17
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