When the Big Ten couldn't fulfill its allotted slot opposite the Big 12’s West Virginia, Heart of Dallas Bowl officials still wanted a matchup of Power Five teams for the Dec. 26 contest in Cotton Bowl Stadium and found what they needed in Utah of the Pac-12 Conference.
The Utes needed a 34-13 win over visiting Colorado in their regular-season finale to become bowl eligible, giving the Pac-12 nine postseason teams. It will be the 36th bowl for the Mountaineers and 21st for Utah, and although it will be at least the fourth Texas-based bowl game for each school, both will be making their debuts in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, which is in its eighth season.
- TIME: 1:30 p.m. ET
- TV: ESPN
- STREAM: WatchESPN
- LINE: Utah -7
While both teams will be making their fourth straight bowl appearance and the two head coaches – West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham – have coached in a combined 16 postseason contests between them, it’s the latter’s historic bowl success that’s garnering the pregame spotlight. The Utes own an impressive 16-4 all-time bowl record, and Whittingham has accounted for 10 of those wins for an NCAA-best postseason record of 10-1, including victories in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl over Pittsburgh (as a co-head coach) and the 2009 Sugar Bowl over Alabama.
“Our secret formula is our players prepare hard and do it the right way, and that’s what it’s all about,” Whittingham said in the Dec. 3 bowl media conference call. “We don’t have a routine or a process that’s top secret. It’s just our guys in the program taking a lot of pride in bowl games, and they prepare the right way.”
The availability of both starting quarterbacks is in question for the game. West Virginia’s Will Grier, the nation’s seventh-ranked passer in terms of efficiency with 3,490 yards and 34 touchdown passes, had surgery after breaking the middle finger on his throwing hand in the first quarter of the Mountaineers’ loss to Texas on Nov. 18, and Holgorsen said the chances of the Florida transfer playing against Utah are “not good.”
Meanwhile, dual-threat sophomore starter Tyler Huntley was a surprise pre-game scratch from Utah’s Nov. 25 regular-season finale with an unspecified injury, but Whittingham classified the QB’s bowl prognosis as “looking very positive” in an early-December interview with the Salt Lake Tribune.
ABOUT WEST VIRGINIA (7-5, 5-4 Big 12):
With Grier sidelined, redshirt sophomore Chris Chugunov started the Mountaineers’ regular-season finale against Oklahoma and went 10-of-20 for 137 yards in the 59-31 road loss, but the team made strong use of the Wildcat formation, featuring reserve tailback Kennedy McKoy who ran for a career-high 137 yards and three TDs in the contest. Starting tailback Justin Crawford, who rushed for a team-high 1,061 yards and seven TDs, announced Dec. 14 he will skip the bowl to focus on NFL Draft preparations, leaving wide receivers Gary Jennings, David Sills V and Ka’Raun White as the top offensive play-makers after they combined for 212 receptions, 2,988 yards and 30 receiving TDs.
Defensively, senior linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton led the way with 102 total tackles, including 13 for losses, but the Mountaineers struggled for the most part, allowing 31.6 points (92nd nationally) and 452.5 yards (110th) per game.
ABOUT UTAH (6-6, 3-6 Pac-12):
Huntley also did miss starts on Oct. 7 and 14 with a shoulder injury, but went 5-4 as a starter with a combined 19 passing and rushing TDs while ranking second in the conference and 15th nationally with an average of 302.9 yards of total offense per game. If Huntley can’t play, the Utes have a capable backup in senior Troy Williams, who is 10-6 as a starter over the last two seasons, including a 9-4 mark a year ago.
Whomever is throwing passes will frequently target senior wide receiver Darren Carrington II, an Oregon transfer who ranked second in the Pac-12 with 83.5 receiving yards per outing, while the defense (ranked third in the conference in rushing, total and scoring defense) and special teams (kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky both garnered multiple All-America honors) are the Utes’ unquestioned strengths.