The Big 12 is still looking for its first bowl win. Will it come in the Heart of Dallas Bowl? West Virginia will be without their two biggest weapons, but they are facing a Utah squad that has some attrition issues of their own. The money favors the Utes by nearly a touchdown, but can the Mountaineers pull off the upset?
DATE & TIME: Tuesday, Dec 26, 12:30 PM CT
LOCATION: Cotton Bowl (Dallas, TX)
FORECAST: High of 42 and possible rain
BETTING LINE: UTAH -6.5
After opening the season 4-0, which included wins over BYU and Arizona, Utah’s season fell apart as they entered the meat of their season. The Utes went just 2-6 through the rest of their schedule with the all-important sixth win coming against Colorado in the last game of the regular season.
For the Mountaineers, 2017 hasn’t exactly been the season everyone in Morgantown was hoping for. Expectations were sky-high as highly touted quarterback Will Grier took over the reins. However, reality caught up to the West Virginia fan base in a hurry by falling to rival Virginia Tech in the season opener as Grier struggled to shake off the rust from sitting on the bench the previous two years.
Grier was able to find his footing against the cupcakes of the Mountaineer’s schedule, but this season was defined, as most seasons are, by the tests on the schedule. WVU didn’t pass many of those. The Mountaineers took care of business for the most part against teams they were favored against, but struggled against equal or greater competition. They finished 7-5 on the season; well short of the dark horse preseason buzz.
The Mountaineer defense took a step back from the hard-hitting and suffocating product we are used to seeing out of a Tony Gibson led unit. West Virginia ranks 110th in total defense heading into the bowl game, and has been forced to rely on their offense to keep up.
Unfortunately, the Mountaineer’s offense will be hampered in the bowl game. Quarterback Will Grier is still recovering from a gruesome finger injury, and is doubtful for the game. To make matters worse, dynamic 1,000-yard back Justin Crawford has decided to forego the bowl game as he prepares for the NFL Draft.
“Justin has logged a lot of miles and been a key contributor for us the past two seasons,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said on Crawford’s decision. “He made a decision to not play in the bowl game based on what is best for him and his family. He came to West Virginia to further his education and be a featured back in the Big 12 and he accomplished his goals. As he starts his preparation for the NFL Draft, we wish him nothing but the best.”
Without its two biggest weapons, Dana Holgorsen’s offensive system will be put to the test. The good news is the additional weeks they’ve had to prepare for this game will only help back up quarterback Chris Chugunov. Chugunov got some work in the final two games of the season against Oklahoma and Texas, where he completed a little over 50 percent of his passes. Those games were losses in the end, but Utah will the be easier of the three tests.
Utah is dealing with some quarterback attrition of their own. Tyler Huntley did not play in their final regular season game against Colorado, and is questionable for the bowl game. Defensive end Kylie Fitts is also questionable for the game.
The strength of this Utah team is on the ground. Running back Zack Moss is the Utes’ workhorse and has over 1,000 yards on the season and is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. However, if Huntley is unable to go, an element of Utah’s rush attack will be hampered. Huntley is the Ute’s second leading rusher with 480 yards to his credit, and backup quarterback Troy Williams isn’t as mobile.
With both teams missing key elements, this one will go to whoever can make the adjustments needed to keep the offense moving.
WVU Keys To The Game
Win Turnover Margin – The Mountaineers have a negative turnover margin on the year, and if they want to pull off the upset, they cannot afford for that trend to continue. It’s simple, but the offense needs to focus on ball security, while the defense, needs to create an extra possession or two for the offense.
Stop The Run – That’s easier said than done for a squad that’s giving 4.39 yards per rush attempt, but the Mountaineers need to focus on stopping the Utah ground attack. That may seem like strange advice for the defense that’s more porous through the air, hear me out. One, the strength of the Utah offense is clearly the run game. Two, any defense that faces enough Big 12 offenses isn’t going look particularly compelling statistically speaking. Utah is far from the best passing attack WVU has seen this year, and the Mountaineers will likely be more comfortable forcing the Utes to beat them through the air.
Win First Down – Normally, we’d say win third down. Win third down, and win the game. However, winning first down will be the key to winning third down in this one, and it goes with key number two. If the Mountaineers can win first down it will put Utah into more passing situations, which will benefit the WVU defense.
WVU is an average Big 12 team, but Utah is a bad Pac-12 team, and we may be biased here, but the two conferences aren’t exactly even to begin with. If West Virginia can bring and extra body into the box and sell out against the run, Utah will be forced to beat them through their air behind a back up quarterback. The Mountaineers have struggled against the pass some this year, but it’s safe to say Utah won’t have a Big 12-caliber passing attack. The Mountaineers should dare Utah to beat them through the air. The question will be whether or not WVU can generate any offense of their own, and that’s where we’re just going to have to trust in Dana Holgorsen.