DALLAS — Utah old-timers have been jonesing for another shot at West Virginia since 1964, and the Mountaineers are determined to shake a four-game losing streak on natural grass. (Hey, in these lower-tier bowl games, you need to dig for motivation wherever you can find it.)
So it goes that WVU (7-5) enters as a 6.5-point underdog to Utah (6-6) as they strap up for the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
With our bellies full of Zalads and Zappetizers, we march this preview into Four-Down Territory:
Chugunov’s next chance
WVU backup quarterback Chris Chugunov, unable to deliver a comeback against Texas and unable to keep pace with Oklahoma, gets his third opportunity at extended playing time Tuesday.
Will Grier’s stand-in sought to have a bigger voice during bowl preparations by organizing off-the-clock throwing sessions while coaches were gone recruiting.
“We weren’t in the facility, but he was getting the receivers out there and running routes with them and starting build some continuity,” said offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
That could lead to improved timing on deep routes, along with better familiarity with Chugunov’s throwing angles.
“Chugs throws a pretty tight spiral so there’s going to be some RPMs on that ball,” Spavital said. “And Chugs isn’t as finesse with the check-downs. He’s not as tall so he has to kind of rip those balls in there.”
Having completed 24-of-45 passes for 326 yards since Grier’s gruesome finger injury, Chugunov hasn’t thrown an interception. Nor has he made the passes required to finish drives.
“He knows the offense,” coach Dana Holgorsen said, “(but) it takes time and you can’t just flip a switch coming into the game against Texas in the second quarter. We are at a better place than we were a few weeks ago.”
Meanwhile, the injured Grier has participated in all the quarterback meetings, restless to return to action.
“Will actually throws his two cents in to tell Chugs about his thought process on a certain play,” Spavital said. “He’s a selfless guy and he wants see us win. He’s bored for the most part, but he wants to help out with Chugs as much as he possibly can.”
Christmas Day marks the one-month anniversary of Oklahoma pillaging West Virginia’s defense for 646 yards in a 59-31 blowout.
“I’m still pissed off, to be honest with you,” said defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “It was embarrassing to give up touchdowns on eight straight possessions. Our kids didn’t play hard, didn’t play like I wanted them to play. I thought it was ridiculous.”
Senior linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton shares Gibby’s pain, and the long break only reinforced how poor the Mountaineers played in Norman.
“I still have that bad taste in my mouth. That was my last Big 12 game and I’ll remember that forever,” Benton said.
“When you have as much time as we did between these games, you have a lot of time to sit down and think about it and realize you never want to put that kind of stuff on tape.”
Gibson can’t stomach that tape, saying “these last 30 days have been miserable for me, and I’ve made it as miserable on the players as I could.
“He’s let us know that it can’t happen again,” said linebacker David Long. “He’s already an aggressive coach and lately he’s been more aggressive honestly.”
Utes to know
While WVU must stick with its backup QB, Utah expects to reinstate injured starter Tyler Huntley, who went 5-4 this season. A dual-threat sophomore whose 65.4 completion percentage ranks 12th nationally, Huntley also averages 53 rushing yards per game.
Darren Carrington (66 catches for 918 yards) represents the Utes’ only consistent receiving threat, though West Virginia’s 100th-rated pass defense can’t overlook anyone.
Coach Kyle Whittingham has another sturdy defense devoid of superstars, with Utah ranking 32nd in total defense.
In the Utes’ secondary watch out for second-team All-Pac 12 cornerback Julian Blackmon, an undervalued in-state recruit who attracted no other Power 5 offers.
“Honestly, I came into this season just hoping people would realize I’m not as bad as people think just because I’m from Utah.” he said.
A reason to watch
The string of 40 games in 23 days inevitably leaves the bowl season bloated with bland-looking matchups. Based on lagging ticket sales, expect plenty of empties at the 92,000-seat Cotton Bowl — modified to 42,000 for this bowl, which features a lunchtime kickoff on the day after Christmas.
But recall that two years ago, when another 7-5 Holgorsen team faced a .500 squad from the Pac-12, the 43-42 West Virginia win rewarded viewers with a dramatic ending. Another tight game could be in store this time.
Utah’s program, with a 13-1 bowl record since 1999, clearly displays a pattern for playing inspired postseason football. On the West Virginia side, all indicators point toward a team driven to avoid a three-game skid.
“Practices have been really revved up, a lot more reps with good-on-good,” Benton said. “What I’ve seen so far is guys coming out and bringing that fire.”
Fifth-year senior fullback Eli Wellman admitted to witnessing lackadaisical approaches by previous bowl teams, though this one doesn’t show any red flags.
“I’ve seen it before where practices don’t go great, but thus far everybody’s been getting in some good work,” he said. “I think the guys are excited.”