Kyle Whittingham's Utes look to continue their success in bowl games when they take on the Mountaineers
After seeing promising starts dissolve into sputtering finishes, both Utah and West Virginia are looking to finish out mediocre seasons on a positive note when they clash in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The Utes (6-6, 3-6 Pac-12) have a good track record of success once they get into a bowl game. Utah has won 13 of its last 14 bowl games dating to 1996. Kyle Whittingham owns the best bowl game winning percentage for any head coach in NCAA history. Whittingham sports a 10-1 (.909) record in bowl games during his tenure at Utah.
The Mountaineers (7-5, 5-4 Big 12) come to Dallas looking to snap a two-game losing streak. This is West Virginia's 15th bowl game in the last 16 seasons, but it hasn't experienced much recent postseason success. The Mountaineers are just 2-5 in their last seven bowl games, winning in the 2012 Orange Bowl and the 2016 Cactus Bowl. Dana Holgorsen has a 2-3 bowl record as West Virginia's head coach.
This is only the second time Utah and West Virginia have played one another. Their first meeting came in the 1964 Liberty Bowl. The Utes beat the Mountaineers 32-6 en route to finishing with their first nine-win season in school history.
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl: Utah vs West Virginia
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 26 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Cotton Bowl Stadium (Dallas)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Utah -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley be at full strength?
Huntley did not play for Utah in the team's 34-13 win over Colorado to close out the regular season and get bowl eligible. Huntley missed the game with an undisclosed injury and previously sat out in losses to Stanford and USC after suffering a shoulder sprain. Troy Williams made three starts in place of Huntley this season and the senior has totaled 812 passing yards on 54.6 percent passing over seven games.
Huntley has made substantial progress since the regular season ended and said he is ready to go against West Virginia. There is some concern about bringing him back too quickly. The sophomore rushed back into action after his two-game absence earlier in the season and struggled in losses to Arizona State and Oregon. Still, Huntley participated in practices ahead of the bowl game and seems to be at 100 percent going into Dallas.
Huntley gives Utah's offense a much more explosive element with dual-threat abilities. He ranks second in the Pac-12 and 15th in the nation in total oﬀense (302.9 ypg). Huntley is a much more accurate passer than Williams. His 65.4 percent completion rate ranks third in the Pac-12 and 12th in the nation. Huntley has thrown for at least 200 yards in seven games this season and is just the 11th Utah player to have that many 200-yard passing games in a single season.
2. How will West Virginia fare without its top offensive playmakers?
The Mountaineers are guaranteed to be shorthanded on offense when they face the Utes. Justin Crawford decided to not play in the bowl game to avoid suffering potential injuries ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft. Joining him on the sidelines is quarterback Will Grier, who suffered a broken finger in mid-November, and won't be healed in time to play in Dallas.
Crawford's absence leaves a big hole in the backfield. The senior rushed for 1,061 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season. Kennedy McKoy will take on a bigger role with Crawford out of the picture. McKoy rushed for 565 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 games. The sophomore is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, not too far removed from Crawford's 5.6 yards per carry average.
Grier's absence is more problematic. The junior threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes before his injury against Texas. Chris Chugunov has totaled 326 yards and one touchdown pass while filling in for Grier and the Mountaineers have lost both games where Chugunov has taken the bulk of the snaps.
There are enough weapons for Chugunov to make progress in his second start. West Virginia has four receivers with at least 600 yards this season, led by Gary Jennings with 1,030 yards.
3. Receiver battle
Two of the nation's top wide receivers will be on the field when Utah and West Virginia face off. It could mean a lot of highlight-reel passing plays for both teams.
David Sills (above, right) is West Virginia's top scoring threat in the receiving corps, with 18 touchdowns and 980 yards on just 60 catches. Sills is the nation's leader in touchdown catches and was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. He was an early-round NFL draft prospect in 2018, but will return to West Virginia for his senior season.
Darren Carrington has been money for Utah, giving the team one of its best receivers in many years. Carrington joined the Utes in fall camp after transferring from Oregon. In his lone season in Salt Lake City, he has tallied 918 yards and six touchdowns on 66 catches.
Carrington, who is projected to go anywhere from the third to fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, ranks second in the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (83.5) and fourth in total receiving yards. He needs just 82 more yards to become Utah's first 1,000 yard receiver since Dres Anderson in 2013.
Utah always finds a way to win bowl games. Taking down the Utes in the postseason would be difficult enough for West Virginia under normal circumstances. With the Mountaineers missing two of their top offensive players, it will be a nearly impossible task. West Virginia has an explosive offense, but Utah is good at controlling the ball and dominating time of possession. The Utes are also more explosive on offense than in past seasons. It's hard to see them dropping their first bowl game since 2010.
Prediction: Utah 31, West Virginia 24
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.