Kragthorpe: Utes defense comes up huge to deliver Whittingham's 11th bowl win

West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V (13) misses a catch against Utah defensive back Philip Afia (2) during the first half of Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2017. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

Dallas • The Heart of Dallas Bowl’s outcome hardly was in doubt at that stage, but Utah’s return team will lament allowing West Virginia to recover an onside kick in the last two minutes Tuesday.

Even so, Utes cornerback Julian Blackmon can thank his teammates’ mistake for the golden football he’ll keep forever. Blackmon’s second interception of the day came on the very next play, giving him the distinction he needed to earn a nice MVP award. And that was just the kind of ending the Utes defense deserved in a 30-14 victory.

Those guys “really controlled the game from start to finish,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said.

West Virginia’s late touchdown drive barely spoiled the symmetry of Utah’s bowl history vs. the Mountaineers and kept the Utes defense from delivering a truly historic performance. More than one-third of the Mountaineers’ 153 total yards came on their second-to-last possession. West Virginia couldn’t top six points in a bowl game against Utah for 53 years and 58 minutes, after a 32-6 loss in the 1964 Liberty Bowl in the schools’ only other meeting in Atlantic City, N.J.

The disclaimer is the Mountaineers were missing their starting quarterback, leading rusher and best offensive lineman. That’s not a sufficient explanation for their effort or any discredit to Utah’s defense – not when West Virginia recorded six first downs all day, including three on the TD drive.

“I think it would have been a different game, but you’ve got to play who you’ve got,” said Utes defensive lineman Lowell Lotulelei, a disruptive force with 2½ tackles for loss.

The tradeoff was Utah’s playing without three key members of the secondary: Chase Hansen, Casey Hughes and Jaylon Johnson. “We never cry the blues about who we’re missing,” Whittingham said.

Regardless of who’s playing for the other guys, “We’re here to play and just dominate, and I feel like that’s what we did in this game,” Blackmon said.

“We needed guys to play better, and they didn’t,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said.

On the other side, this was a frustrating day for anyone wanting to spend the next eight months reliving a breakout performance from Utah’s offense. The Utes scored 30-plus points in each of their last three games for only the second time in Whittingham’s 13 seasons. The reality is the defense and special teams deserve a lot of credit for the offense’s production Tuesday, counting touchdown drives of 13 and 39 yards and three field goals from Matt Gay.

Quarterback Tyler Huntley, who missed the regular-season finale vs. Colorado due to injury, was erratic as a passer while his read-option keepers took the ball away from running back Zack Moss. That’s the premise of the scheme, but Moss (150 yards) seemingly merited more than 20 carries.

Regardless, a winter of wondering about coordinator Troy Taylor’s offense should be mixed with appreciation of coordinator Morgan Scalley’s defense. Lotulelei and Filipo Mokofisi were dominant up front, and leave as seniors who posted four bowl wins in their careers.

Utah’s defense is the story of Whittingham’s 11th bowl victory. He’s tied with Alabama’s Nick Saban on the victories list among active coaches, although Saban has nine losses at three schools – including one to Utah. Whittingham has one loss.

The Atlantic City Convention Hall may have been a better venue than the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium, considering Tuesday’s rain and 39-degree temperatures. The announced attendance was 20,507; the actual count was closer to the crowd of 6,059 indoors in 1964.

The rain subsided in the end, enabling the Utes and their fans to enjoy the postgame presentation. Only one chore remained: successfully bringing the trophy home to the Spence & Cleone Eccles Football Center. The ’64 Liberty Bowl prize somehow is missing from Utah’s collection. Nothing is fancy about the Heart of Dallas Bowl trophy, but it is worth keeping. Utah’s defense deserves to have Tuesday’s memories preserved.