Dallas • West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen sat at the dais and quipped sarcastically that with the vast amount of time since the end of the season he’d installed three or four new offenses to accommodate his backup quarterback taking over as the starter.
The Utes’ hopes of defeating the Mountaineers (7-5) in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl at 11:30 a.m. MST Tuesday, finishing the season with a winning record and capturing a fifth consecutive postseason victory likely hinges largely on their ability to disrupt Mountaineers signal caller Chris Chugunov in his second collegiate start.
“We have all of about eight practices,” Holgorsen said. “In all honestly, it has been good for Chugs. Chugs has been at West Virginia for three years, so it’s not like he doesn’t know the offense. The biggest thing is understanding he is the starting quarterback and when you have these practices you have to develop some timing with the guys that he’s going to actually be throwing to. You can’t really flip that switch right at beginning of the second quarter against Texas.”
Chugunov, a redshirt sophomore, will enter the game having thrown 21 pass attempts as a Mountaineer. The Utes (6-6) know that Chugunov will be more prepared for this game than any other he’s played and armed with a game plan tailored to his strengths.
More importantly, Chugunov will have a bevy of weapons around him as he takes control one of the top offenses in college football (18th-best scoring offense, 14th-most yards per game). It won’t hurt that his offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital, has matched wits with Utah in each of the previous two seasons when he held the same position for Pac-12 member California.
The Mountaineers offense passed for 300 yards in nine games and also rushed for more than 200 yards in six games. The unit gained 500 yards or more of total offense six times this season. While starting quarterback Will Grier will miss the game due to a hand injury, Chugunov will have two primary targets who finished this season among top 30 in FBS in receiving yards in juniors Gary Jennings (1,030, 21st) and David Sills (980 yards, 28th).
Sills, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, earned first-team All-Big-12 honors as well as All-American accolades from several organizations, including the Associated Press, Walter Camp Football Foundation, the American Football Coaches Association and The Sporting News. Jennings was a second-team all-conference selection.
“What stands out is they catch the ball,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Mountaineers receivers. “They catch every ball thrown to them. It’s impressive if you watch. Their route structure is very good, obviously, and precise. But [what stands out is] just the way they catch the ball, very few drops.”
Relying on what has been a significantly improved pass rush of late will play a big part of the formula for getting that Mountaineers offense out of sync. It will also take pressure off of a young secondary that sustained multiple injuries late in the season. Freshman cornerback Jaylon Johnson will not play in the bowl game.
The Utes defense produced just seven sacks in the first seven Pac-12 games, but it manged to crank up the heat and record seven in the past two conference games against Washington and Colorado.
Sophomore defensive end Bradlee Anae got into the backfield for four sacks in those final two games. He finished the regular season with a team-high seven sacks. His task won’t be easy in this game as Churgunov’s backside will also be protected All-Big 12 left tackle Yodny Cajuste.
“You’ve got to try to rattle the new guy,” Utes senior defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi said. “You want to put pressure on him, make him feel uncomfortable, make him feel like he hasn’t been there before. I feel like we pressured a lot more these last two games than we have all year. I think that’s the reason why we got to the quarterback more.”
UTAH VS WEST VIRGINIA
At Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas
Kickoff • 11:30 a.m. MT
TV • ESPN
Radio • 700 AM, Sirius 137/XM 202, Internet 962
Records • Utah 6-6; West Virginia 7-5
Series history • Utes lead 1-0
About the Mountaineers • West Virginia finished the season with a pair of losses by double-digit margins to Texas and Oklahoma. Starting quarterback Will Grier left the game against Texas with a hand injury and did not play against Oklahoma. … Running back and producer of back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons Justin Crawford will sit out the bowl game in preparation for the NFL Draft. Backup Kennedy McKoy rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma. McKoy rushed for 580 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry this season. … Pro Football Focus selected West Virginia’s sophomore linebacker David Long Jr. to its All-America second-team. Long missed four games due to an offseason leg injury. He comes into the bowl game with 69 tackles (50 solo). However, West Virginia’s defense gave up 204.8 rushing yards per game this season.
About the Utes • Utes coach Kyle Whittingham enters the postseason with a 10-1 bowl record, tied for second among active coaches and trailing only Alabama’s Nick Saban. Whittingham’s holds the best bowl winning percentage (91 percent) in NCAA history. … Kicker Matt Gay became the Utes’ seventh consensus All-America selection on top of the program’s first Lou Groza Award winner. Gay led the nation in field goals made (27), field goals made per game (2.25), field goals or 50 yards or more (five, tied) and field goals attempted (31) during the regular season. He made 87 percent of his field-goal attempts, which ranked 11th in NCAA Division I. He went 5 of 6 from 50 yards or more, and his two 56-yard field goals are tied for the second longest in the nation this season. … Wide receiver Darren Carrington II recorded a career-high 918 receiving yards this season, 10th-most in program history. His 83.5 yards per game rank second in the Pac-12 and 28th in FBS. He earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors for the second time in his career.