DALLAS — West Virginia hasn’t been on Utah’s radar since 1964 when the teams met in the Liberty Bowl in Atlantic City. The Utes prevailed 32-6 that day in the one and only game between the schools.
Now comes the encore, of sorts.
However, odds are it may not be worth the wait. The Mountaineers (7-5) enter Tuesday’s Heart of Dallas Bowl without a couple of key components. Highly touted quarterback Will Grier (broken finger) and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford (preparing for the NFL draft) are out. So, too, reports the Charleston Gazette-Mail, is guard Kyle Bosch.
Even so, Utah is still gearing up for what West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff do best. The Mountaineers average 485.1 yards of total offense per game. They’re getting 324.7 of those yards passing and are scoring 36.3 points per outing.
“They’re very well coached and they’ve got a prolific offense. Obviously it’s a different offense when Grier’s not the quarterback as far as what they gravitate towards and what they emphasize,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “But coach Holgorsen is one of the best offensive coaches in the country, and there’s no doubt in our minds that they will have a great game-plan going in and it will be tough to stop.”
Although sophomore quarterback Chris Chugunov is fairly inexperienced with just 407 yards passing and two touchdowns this season, he did step in for the injured Grier in a 28-14 loss to Texas and started in the regular-season finale at Oklahoma, a 59-31 setback.
Chugunov completed 24 of 46 passes for 326 yards and a touchdown over the games with the Longhorns and Sooners. More preparation time should improve his connections to junior receivers Gary Jennings and David Sills. Jennings has 94 receptions for 1,030 yards and one score. Sill, meanwhile, leads the nation with 18 touchdown catches.
“He’s got some good hands. He’s big. He’s got good hands and it just seems like, I don’t know, he does things that other receivers can’t do,” said Utah safety Chase Hansen. “A lot of times in the Pac-12, it seems like there’s a lot of fast guys, and (Sills has) got good speed. But it seems like he knows how to go up and then get the ball. He’ll catch it in traffic. He’s a tough dude, and they go to him a lot. And it seems like even when he is covered, he’s got those long levers to just be able to make plays with.”
More than anything, he said, the 6-foot-4 Sills is about making plays on the ball.
“Their wide receivers are really good. They’re probably one of the best groups that we’ve faced all year long — great body control, great route runners, and they catch, for the most part, everything that comes their way,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “They drop very little. Now you’ll see drops here and there, but the bottom line is in traffic, up top and contested balls, they’re catching them.”
Scalley added that the matchup will be a very good test for a young Utah secondary. Freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson won’t being playing after recent surgery on an undisclosed injury.
Whittingham said that Chugunov having 1½ games is better than none in preparing for West Virginia. He said that bowl games are like season-openers because of the preparation time. Even so, Whittingham expects to see some continued similarities and formations to that of Washington Sate.
“It is tough because they’re kind of a different team without (Grier). It’s almost a completely different offense. But at the same time they’re still going to use certain weapons,” Hansen said. “They’ve got certain ones you know they’re going to use. You kind of prepare for what you do know they’re going to do regardless.”
West Virginia’s defense is led by a pair of seniors. Linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton has 102 tackles (13 for loss) as well three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Safety Kyzir White has made 81 tackles. He has three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
The Mountaineers went 2-1 in non-conference play. They fell to Virginia Tech (31-24) before knocking off East Carolina (56-20) and Delaware State (59-16). They went 5-4 in Big 12 contests — defeating Kansas (56-34), Texas Tech (46-35), Baylor (38-36), Iowa State (20-16) and Kansas State (28-23), but losing to TCU (31-24), Oklahoma State (50-39), Texas and Oklahoma.