Once the news found its way to Pam Hansen, she immediately got in touch with her son, Chase, to let him know the Hansen clan was already in the process of planning its Christmas celebration with him in Dallas.
“We can’t wait,” she told Hansen, Utah’s junior starting strong safety.
Early Christmas agendas have come calling for the Utes.
And for the second straight year, the team, family members and staffers will be on the road to open presents.
Utah (6-6, 3-6 in Pac-12 play) on Sunday accepted an invitation to the 2017 Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl to face the West Virginia Mountaineers on Tuesday, Dec. 26. The game is scheduled to be played at the historic Cotton Bowl in Dallas and kick off at 11:30 a.m. MST. The game will be aired on ESPN.
Brant Ringler, executive director of the bowl, said after the Big Ten couldn’t fulfill the allotted slot, organizers started searching for other Power 5 programs available. When they saw Utah was available, Ringler said, “it was an easy, easy selection for us.”
The Utes will play in their fourth consecutive bowl game and 12th with coach Kyle Whittingham at the helm. Utah owns a remarkable 10-1 record in bowl games since Whittingham took over as head coach in 2005. The bowl win clip of 91 percent is highest in NCAA history.
Hansen laughed recalling his first bowl game prep, assuming it would be a relaxing time capped off with one last game.
He learned quickly that it’s quite the contrary.
“It’s like another fall camp for us here,” he said. “It’s no joke. Whether you like it or hate it, we go out and work when you’re getting ready for a bowl game, and I expect nothing less this year.”
Utah, one of nine Pac-12 teams to qualify for bowl games in 2017, found out of its destination Sunday afternoon when Jeff Rudy, director of football operations, sent out the mass text to the players alerting them, said senior tight end Harrison Handley.
The initial reaction of facing the Mountaineers?
The Utes don’t know much about them.
“Not much at all,” Handley said.
Handley said being able to face a Big 12 opponent on the national stage is a plus. The senior from Draper listed the names of the teams Utah has faced the last three years — Colorado State, BYU and Indiana.
West Virginia, Handley conceded, is a plus.
“Someone’s that’s a bit bigger [in reputation] is going to be great for us,” he said.
“I just know they’re West Virginia,” Hansen said. “Very respectable.”
The Mountaineers, who will also play in their fourth straight bowl game, finished 7-5 overall and 5-4 in Big 12 play. Junior quarterback Will Grier had one of the most productive seasons in West Virginia football history — and that’s saying something, considering the amount of offensive talent that has funneled through Morgantown, W.Va., over the years.
“I think it’s huge for us and a great opportunity,” Whittingham said. “I have all the respect in the world for them, and I’m sure our players will when they see their tape and so it’s a big plus for us.”
Grier, a transfer from Florida, threw for 3,490 yards and tied for seventh in the country with 34 touchdown passes. He also ranked seventh in passing efficiency with a rating of 162.7. Grier suffered a broken middle finger on his throwing hand on Nov. 18 and later underwent surgery.
“Not good,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen when asked of Grier’s availability for the game.
West Virginia ranks 16th in the country in total offense, averaging 485 yards of offense per outing. It has a 1,000-yard running back in senior Justin Crawford (1,060 yards rushing, seven touchdowns), too.
As is the case amid the abundance of high-powered spread offenses in the Big 12, life on the other side of the ball can be a bit brutal.
The Mountaineers are 110th in the nation in total defense, allowing 452 yards per game. They’re also 104th in rushing defense, allowing 204 yards per game on the ground.
The priority, Hansen said, is to not only send Utah’s senior class off “on a bang,” but to finish the year above .500 and with another bowl trophy in hand.
“[At 7-6], it’s a winning season, so you can look back, be over .500 and at least hold your head up high at the end of the year,” he said. “We put in a lot of work. We have a lot of pride here.”
2017 Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
Utah (6-6) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
When • Tuesday, December 26
Where • Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas
TV • ESPN
Odds and ends • Utah is making its fourth straight bowl game appearance. … Under coach Kyle Whittingham, Utah is 10-1 in bowl games. … West Virginia has been to a bowl game in 15 of its last 16 seasons and will appear in its fourth straight bowl game, too. … Whittingham said Sunday that the prognosis for starting QB Tyler Huntley is “looking very positive.” Huntley missed the regular-season finale due to an unspecified injury. … Utah has 12 players with Texas ties on this year’s roster.
Last (and only) meeting • Utah beat West Virginia 32-6 in the 1964 Liberty Bowl in Atlantic City, N.J.