DALLAS — Their seasons marked by near-misses and what-ifs, West Virginia and Utah recognize that the Heart of Dallas Bowl presents an opportunity to erase some of the disappointment.
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 is trying to avoid finishing with a losing record, which has only happened twice in coach Kyle Whittingham’s 13 seasons. And his 10-1 mark in bowl games shows he gives postseason destination second-tier treatment.
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.”
Both teams dealt with quarterback injuries, and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has ruled out junior Will Grier for the bowl game. 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.
With running back Zack Moss averaging 5.3 yards per carry, Utah runs the ball nearly 40 times per game behind an offensive front that averages 312 pounds per starter.
“Their O-line is huge,” Holgorsen said. “Evidently, they are focused on recruiting the bigger guys up front.”
However, that line has yielded 32 sacks and 84 TFLs this season, among the most in the FBS. Those vulnerabilities could be exposed by the blitzes of West Virginia, though defensive coordinator Tony Gibson expects tweaks from hat the Utes tried through 12 games.
“The thing that could be different is they start self-scouting themselves, looking at tendencies,” Gibson said. “Right now we’re pretty honed in on what they do off of backfield sets, so I’m sure they’ll mix things up.”
West Virginia certainly mixed things up in its regular-season finale at Oklahoma, unveiling the Wildcat formation with running back Kennedy McKoy. The second-stringer carried 25 times for a season-high 137 yards, relieving some of the responsibility from Chugunov among his first college start.
McKoy’s role should only expand in the bowl now that 1,082-yard rusher Justin Crawford opted to skip the game in order to begin NFL draft preparations. He might even be called upon to throw at times, something he hasn’t done since high school.
Chugunov has ample weapons at receiver, led by Biletnikoff finalist David Sills (60 catches, 980 yards, FBS-leading 18 touchdowns). Gary Jennings emerged as a tough, possession receiver by making 94 catches for 1,030 yards, and senior Ka’Raun White is nearing 1,000 yards himself with 11 scores.
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 fro 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.”