Utah became bowl eligible in the last week of the season; can they head into 2018 with some momentum?
The Heart of Dallas Bowl features two teams that have found their seasons go two different ways. West Virginia had an up-and-down season going 2-4 against top-25 teams but still finished fourth in the Big 12 by beating up on the bottom feeders of the conference. Utah, on the other hand, started off the season hot jumping out to a 4-0 start. Things took a turn for the worst as the Utes finished 2-6 and needed a win over Colorado in the final game to become bowl eligible.
The Mountaineers and Utes will square off on December 26th at 1:30 pm EST on ESPN.
Storylines Heading Into The Game
1. West Virginia Stars To Miss Game- The Mountaineers will be shorthanded when they head to Dallas to take on the Utes. Earlier this month starting running back Justin Crawford announced he will skip the bowl game to focus on preparing for the NFL Draft. Crawford leads the team with 190 carries, 1,061 yards, and seven touchdowns. While West Virginia isn’t a run-heavy team, losing your star back will hurt the change of pace. Taking his spot will be sophomore Kennedy McCoy, who finished the season with 111 carries, 565 yards, and seven touchdowns.
WVU DieHards (@WVUDieHards) November 21, 2017
The bigger loss for West Virginia is quarterback Will Grier. In a loss to Texas near the end of the season, Grier suffered a broken finger that kept him out for the final two weeks. Grier was the unsung leader for this offense throwing for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns. His contributions won’t be easy to replicate but sophomore Chris Chugunov will do his best to fill Grier’s shoes.
2. Utah Squeaks Into Bowl Game, But History Is On Their Side- This 2017 Utah has had incredible ups and downs on their way to a 6-6 record. They started off 4-0 and looked to be a surprise team in the Pac-12. However, during the toughest part of their schedule, the Utes dropped six of their next seven games setting up a do-or-die game against Colorado. Utah would take care of business winning 34-13 to become bowl eligible.
While their season isn’t anything to brag about, Utah has an incredible history of winning bowl games. Since 1999, the Utes are 13-1 and have won four in a row under current coach Kyle Whittingham. For some reason, Utah plays their best football during bowl season, and fans could be seeing more of the same this year.
3. 2018 Mountaineers’ Offense Will Look Similar To 2017 Squad- The end of the season didn’t go how the Mountaineers planned but they can take solace in the fact they will have the pieces in place to make a run in 2018. The first major announcement came from Grier. On December 20th he made his decision to forgo the draft and come back for another year in Morgantown. This is the best news heading into next season that they could ask for. Head coach Dana Holgorsen had this to say about his signal caller:
Will’s decision to return next year certainly makes it a great day for West Virginia football, He is a great leader for our program, and I know our fans enjoy watching his talents on the football field. His teammates and the coaching staff are certainly looking forward to his return, and this is positive news for all involved.
“West Virginia is my home, and I couldn’t be more excited about the future here.”— WVU Football (@WVUfootball) December 14, 2017
Will Grier ➡️ 2018 pic.twitter.com/C1gkBTEjoG
Grier will also be happy to hear that just a few days later, the second leading receiver in David Sills V will return (more on him later). With Grier, Sills, and Gary Jennings returning, 2018 might be the year the Mountaineers make a push for the Big 12 crown.
160.4: I mentioned earlier that the Mountaineers were going to be without starting running back Crawford. That’s a huge blow because West Virginia was very poor in the run game to begin with. They rank 71st in rushing yards per game at 160.4. Without a running game, there will be even more pressure on Chugunov to lead this offense against a solid Utah defense.
-1: Turnovers are often the difference between winning and losing, and Utah has not done a good job winning that battle. On the year, the Utes have a minus-one turnover margin. Looking deeper into the turnovers, the defense has 23 takeaways, which is tied for 28th. On the flip side, the offense has lost the football 24 times, which is 19th most in the country. Utah will have to protect the ball in order to keep the Mountaineer offense off the field and keep them from getting into a rhythm.
17: The best way to get an inexperienced quarterback to make mistakes is to put pressure on him. Utah might have a hard time doing so since the West Virginia offensive line has only given up 17 sacks on the season, tied for 27th nationally. Chugunov should have plenty of time to sit in the pocket, go through his progressions, and find either Sills or Jennings down the field. The more confidence Chugunov gets, the more dangerous the Mountaineers become.
David Sills V, Wide Receiver, West Virginia- Sills is one of the most unique players in the country. He was initially recruited as a quarterback but came into Morgantown and was converted to receiver in 2015. He went to a Junior College in 2016 and returned to West Virginia again before this season and has been an important part of the offense. He caught 60 passes, 980 yards, and 18 touchdowns. His receptions and yards were second on the team but his touchdowns lead the way and helped Sills get named as an AP Second-Team All-American. Having a reliable target like Sills can help even the most inexperienced QBs.
Tyler Huntley, Quarterback, Utah- One wouldn’t expect a quarterback that went 5-4 on the season to be a difference maker, but sophomore Tyler Huntley is just that. Huntley was the starting QB during the Utes 4-0 start but was injured in a win over Arizona. He missed the next two game and when he returned wasn’t able to get back into a groove. Huntley missed the final game against Colorado with an injury but coach Whittingham said Huntley is 100% for the bowl game. On the season, Huntley has thrown for 2,246 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also added 480 rushing yards on 143 carries and four touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, Huntley should be able to have success against a sub-par West Virginia defense.
Why West Virginia Will Win
West Virginia needs Chugunov to play as close to Grier-level as possible. He doesn’t need to be perfect, but if the Mountaineer offense can run close to its potential then they should have no problem winning this game. The running game will also have to be a nice compliment to the passing attack. If the Utah defense forces WVU into obvious passing situations than they can sit back and force the QB to make tough contested throws.
The Mountaineers might have to call on their defense to win this game, and that’s not something they should be excited about. They give up 31.6 points and 453 yards per game, both in the bottom-40 in the nation. If they can’t slow down Huntley and the offense they will have to force him into turnovers. Ten turnovers is a lot for a QB in nine games, and Huntley has two games with three or more interceptions.
Why Utah Will Win
The formula for Utah to win this game is actually pretty simple: ride the defense. Outside of receiver, the Mountaineers have inexperienced players at every level. Defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Sunia Tauteoli have wrecked havoc on offenses, each picking up 10 tackles for loss. On top of that Anae leads the team in sacks with seven. If he can do more of the same then it can throw a major wrench in the Mountaineers offensive game plan.
On offense, Utah has to take care of the football. They cant afford to give a struggling offense in WVU a short field where it’ll be easier to score. Ride the combo of Huntley and Zack Moss on the ground. Moss has 1,023 rushing yards and could find huge success against a defense that gives up over 200 yards on the ground per game.
I’ve said it multiple times and I’ll mention it again, the Mountaineers will miss Grier and Crawford in the backfield. Utah’s defense isn’t like those in the Big 12 and can force issues with an inexperienced group. They have 44 pass deflections as a team and will focus on stopping the pass more than anything.
The Utah offense leaves a lot to be desired but has the playmakers to make West Virginia sweat. I think Moss has a typical good game on the ground and Huntley comes back and does enough to keep the Utah offense moving down the field.
Utah Wins 30-28
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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