Utah dominates on defense
By Jeff Wilson
DALLAS -- Crazy things have been known to happen when a team is forced to use its backup quarterback and has a month to prepare him for the next game.
The Utah Utes' defense, though, wasn't going to fall into any traps Tuesday afternoon against the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Utah's defense suffocated West Virginia's offense, which was without injured junior QB Will Grier, and Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley accounted for 212 total yards and two TDs in a 30-14 victory in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Utah surrendered only 153 yards to the Grier-less West Virginia offense, its fewest yards in a game since 2013, and forced three turnovers.
While tailback Zack Moss rushed for 150 yards and gave Utah an early 7-0 lead with a 58-yard TD burst, the defense controlled the game and was the No. 1 reason why coach Kyle Whittingham improved to 11-1 all time in bowl games.
"It was 150, 160 yards they gave up, and 20-something rushing, six first downs," Whittingham said. "I'm proud of how they played. I thought they really controlled the game from start to finish. We won the line of scrimmage, and that was very evident."
Chris Chugunov struggled for West Virginia (7-6) in his second career start, completing only 9 of 28 passes for a 129 yards. Fifty-eight of those came on consecutive plays late in the game, including an 18-yard TD strike to Ka'Raun White.
Though sacked only twice, Chugunov lost a fumble and threw two interceptions. Sophomore cornerback Julian Blackmon nabbed both of them and was named the game's MVP.
Linebacker Cody Martin recovered two fumbles, including one on a muffed punt in the second quarter.
The Utes (7-6) knew of the Grier injury, and others facing the Mountaineers, but that didn't change their bowl prep work.
"It didn't change anything at all," Blackmon said. "Our coach told us that we were going to prepare and we were going to prepare the right way no matter who steps on the field. That's what we take into every game. We're here to play and to dominate."
That's what the Utes did at the historic Cotton Bowl, especially in the second half.
They had yielded only 5 yards before West Virginia's meaningless 67-yard TD drive late in the fourth quarter. When the Mountaineers took over at the Utah 9 in the third quarter following a fumbled deep snap, they bowed out without gaining a yard on three plays.
Instead of moving within seven points, West Virginia was forced to settle for a 26-yard field goal and a 17-6 deficit.
The Utes' defensive performance in the third quarter was especially big as the offense sputtered some before quarterback Tyler Huntley raced in from 2 yards out early in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 24-6.
"We just did the same thing we have done all season," Whittingham said. "We played tough defense, and this senior class did such a great job. This was a very resilient group. They fought hard and came to play every week in spite of some close losses early. This is a tribute to the dedication of these players and the coaching staff."