Plenty of mystery ahead for ZHODB
By Anthony Andro
DALLAS – The Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl might want to consider a name change for the Tuesday matchup of West Virginia and Utah.
The eighth edition of the game could also be called the Mystery Bowl because there are so many uncertainties heading into the first bowl game of the season pitting two Power Five teams.
Will West Virginia (7-5) be able to find its offensive stride under quarterback Chris Chugunov, who has played since quarters since starter Will Grier went down with a hand injury? Can the Mountaineers overcome the loss of leading rusher Justin Crawford, who has opted to skip the game to prepare for his chance at a professional career?
The Utes (6-6) have had issues, too. After a 4-0 start, Utah lost six of its last eight games and didn’t become bowl eligible until winning its season finale against Colorado. And what is head coach Kyle Whittingham’s secret to bowl success as he’s 10-1 in the postseason since taking over as the Utah head coach.
Mysteries indeed, hopefully all of which will be solved in only the second-ever meeting between two schools that haven’t faced each other since 1964.
The key to the game could be the West Virginia offense. Chugunov has thrown for 407 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He’s also had the benefit of the bowl prep to better prepare.
“Our quarterback has been here for three years, so he knows the offense,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “The biggest thing is understanding he is the starting quarterback and he has used the practices to develop timing with his wide receivers. It takes time and you can't just flip a switch like the game at Texas [on Nov. 18] in the second quarter. We are at a better place than we were a few weeks ago.”
That’s the case even without Crawford, who rushed for 1,082 yards. Holgorsen is confident runners like Kennedy McCoy (565 yards) can pick up the slack without Crawford. And if Chugunov can get in a rhythm, the Mountaineers have a talented receiving corps led by Gary Jennings and David Sills that are unlike anything the Utes have faced this season.
“They catch every ball thrown to them,” Whittingham said. “There are very few drops. Off the top of my head, there isn’t a team in the Pac 12 with as many weapons as what West Virginia has.”
The Mountaineers also feel like they have something to prove after losing their last two games, including a 59-31 loss to Oklahoma.
“I still have a bad feeling in my mouth,” said West Virginia linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton. “We don’t want to go out like that. That was my last Big 12 game and I’ll remember it forever. There’s no better way to avenge that than to come back with a win.”
It won’t be easy against a Utah team that finally has a healthy quarterback in Tyler Huntley, who was able to take advantage of the break to get stronger. The sophomore has thrown for more than 2,200 yards and run for more than 600.
The Utes are hoping Huntley can help them end the season as a winner. Utah hasn’t had a losing season since 2013, and it doesn’t want that streak to end Tuesday.
“Seven and six sounds a lot better than 6-7,” said Utah defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi. “It’s a winning season vs. a losing season. This is definitely a big game for us.”