Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Utah defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei (93) sacks West Virginia quarterback Chris Chugunov (5) during Tuesday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.

 

COMMENTARY

DALLAS — Five days ago, on the eve of West Virginia’s football team leaving Morgantown, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital revealed a thorny premonition.

“If I have one O-lineman go down, I’ve got to take out like 50 percent of my packages,” he said.

Because Kyle Bosch already had been ruled out by that point, Spavital actually feared losing “one more” O-lineman, which happened in Dallas when left tackle Yodny Cajuste exited practice with only one functioning hamstring.

Excuses being about as valuable as Heart of Dallas Bowl end-zone tickets, no pity arose for the Mountaineers’ misfortune. Not when they entered Tuesday ranked No. 14 in total offense, averaging more yards than all but two of the Utah’s previous opponents. Not when Dana Holgorsen has lauded the acquisition of roster depth made specifically to patch situations like this. And certainly not on a day where Utah resisted excuse-making of its own with three defensive backs missing.

The story of this game became so evident it could’ve been written on the side of a Zaxby’s three-piece box: Kyle Whittingham’s shorthanded defense bullied West Virginia’s shorthanded offense.

Even through the fog and drizzle, you could see 320-pound Lowell Lotulelei sacking Chris Chugunov — not actually by touching the quarterback but rather by tossing Kelby Wickline (Cajuste’s replacement) into the QB’s path. A manhandling moment among many, to be sure, as West Virginia relinquished all leverage up front.

“We weren’t the most physical team at all, which is pretty obvious,” said Spavital after dialing up 21 rushing attempts that netted 1.4 yards per carry. (That stat should put an end to wondering whether Justin Crawford had second thoughts.)

Pass protection wasn’t acceptable either.

“I think the first four pass plays we had, Chugs was on his back,” he said.

When Chugunov had the good fortune to remain on his feet, his arm rarely hit the target. So much for the extended bowl lead-in helping develop pass-game timing. Even compared to those so-so games against Texas and Oklahoma, the mess that transpired in Dallas marked a stark regression. Chugunov completed 9-of-28 passes, sometimes grimacing over errant throws, as Will Grier tried to steady him on the sideline.

“I told him to just control the controllable,” Grier said. “Sometimes you get caught up in trying to be perfect, so I said just try to stay calm and make the throws he could make.”

Things turned so dire offensively that West Virginia’s best chance at a touchdown appeared to fade with special-teamer Shane Commodore being tackled at the 9-yard line after collecting a fumble by Utah’s punter.

For 58 minutes the Mountaineers had two field goals, pacing themselves to match their lowest bowl output ever. (Coincidentally, one of those six-point games came in the 1964 loss to Utah.) But then Chugunov’s garbage-time magic doubled WVU’s first down total from three to six. His TD throw gave Ka’Raun White a senior-year parting gift but did nothing to dent Whittingham’s almost mystical bowl mark.

A commendable regular-season coach (.645 winning percentage) keeps turning up fantastic in the postseason (.917), which could be a nod to motivation, emphasis, December conditioning drills or, if you’re the cynical type, an extended run of favorable matchups in second-tier bowls marked by forgettable sponsors.

Thing is, these games are truly forgettable only for the losing team, which left West Virginia to write off the memory of Tuesday’s lopsided beating, and make their own premonitions about doing better in 2018.

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