Story by Michael Shapiro
On a chilly post-Christmas afternoon at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, the University of Utah football team (7–6 overall, 3–6 Pac-12) entered the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl with one mission: to defeat West Virginia (7–6, 5–4 Big 12) and secure the program’s fourth-straight winning season. Armed with a fearsome pass rush and dual-threat offensive attack, the Utes did exactly that as they took down the Mountaineers, 30-14.
Tuesday’s victory marked Utah’s fourth bowl win in as many seasons, as well as head coach Kyle Whittingham’s 11th postseason victory at the helm of the Utes. Whittingham now sits atop the active coaches list in bowl wins, tied with Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
“We’ve had several groups of guys come through here who take pride in their bowl performance and the bowl record we have here, and this year’s group is no different,” Whittingham said. “Each group wants to keep that bowl prowess alive … and this group did a great job of that.”
The Utes set the tone of the game on their opening drive, relying on their ground game en route to the matchup’s first score. It took Utah four plays to find the end zone as sophomore running back Zack Moss scampered for a 58-yard touchdown on his second carry of the day. Less than five minutes into the contest, Utah led 7-0.
“Our offensive line was great for us today, and we bring four of those guys next year,” Moss said. “The last few weeks we’ve all been gelling really well together and it paid off again today.”
With an early lead in tow, the Utes’ defense held West Virginia’s attack in check, thanks to a smothering defensive front. Utah swarmed Mountaineers’ quarterback Chris Chugunov – starting in place of injured starter Will Grier – to the tune of two sacks in the first quarter, including 1.5 from defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei. West Virginia only mustered 38 yards in the opening frame, holding the Utes’ touchdown lead.
Utah’s offense sputtered for much of the first half following the game-opening drive as the team failed to convert on a slew of third-and-long situations. But on punter Mitch Wishnowsky’s fourth boot of the day, the Utes caught a break, recovering a muffed punt deep in Mountaineer territory. Three plays later, quarterback Tyler Huntley, who went 12-of-26 for 165 yards in the air and 57 yards on the ground, found the end zone from two yards out. At the half, the Utes were up 17-3.
West Virginia continued to struggle offensively in the second half as the Utes defensive line remained in control. The Mountaineers tallied 29 yards rushing on the afternoon, forcing the inexperienced Chugunov to create offense through the air. The redshirt sophomore found himself under pressure on a lot of dropbacks, often forcing him to throw the ball out-of-bounds or into tight coverage. The Mountaineers’ signal caller ended his day 9-of-28 for 129 yards in the air. Chugunov threw two interceptions as well, both credited to sophomore defensive back Julian Blackmon.
“It all starts with our front,” Blackmon said. “Without them getting to the quarterback I don’t get my picks, so it’s all a team game … I’m happy that we played the way we did today, especially getting our seniors out the way we wanted.”
In the fourth quarter, Utah started its drive with the ball at West Virginia’s 39-yard-line before a 25-yard pass from Huntley to wide receiver Darren Carrington II placed the Utes inside the red zone. Huntley added his second rushing touchdown, again from two yards out.
Utah’s signal caller was aided by another strong day from his backfield mate Moss, who tallied 150 yards rushing plus one touchdown. Huntley and Moss had West Virginia on its heels from the outset, mainly via the read-option. Both served as threats to sprint past the West Virginia front seven and into the secondary, leading to seven runs of 10 or more yards. The Mountaineers scored a garbage-time touchdown with 1:58 remaining on the clock before the Utes added another postseason trophy to their collection.