Kyle Whittingham took over as head coach of the Utah Utes when Urban Meyer left for the University of Florida at the end of the 2004 season. Whittingham became the head coach prior to their bowl game, the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, where quarterback Alex Smith led the Utes to a 35-7 beat down of the Pittsburgh Panthers. That victory propelled Whittingham to a 10-1 bowl record a 90.9% winning percentage, the best record in NCAA history. Another bowl victory in 2008, capped off a 13-0 season when they beat Alabama, dealing Nick Saban one of his only bowl game losses. Thus proving, that the faceoff between the Mountaineers and Utes on December 26th in Dallas will be one worth watching.
Utah is a spread principle team that rarely takes a snap under center. Majority of their plays use a four-wide receiver set with one running back in the backfield. Often, they use one tight end or an additional back in the backfield. The use of tight ends is predominantly for blocking purposes as the top two tight ends have combined for six catches on the season. The Utes have averaged 161.3 yards on the ground and 256.4 yards through the air per game. The majority of the time, they utilize a zone blocking scheme but occasionally use power running principles. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley has proven to be a great athletic leader who possesses the ability to move out of the pocket on roll outs or to move away from pressure. He has completed 187 of 286 passes for 15 touchdowns but has also thrown 10 interceptions. Tyler is the second leading rusher on the team with 480 yards despite missing three games this season due to injury but is expected to start the bowl game. Their run game is led by running back Zack Moss who gained 1023 yards on the ground with 9 touchdowns. Utah has done a good job of using Moss in the passing game as an outlet during pressure situations and as part of the regular passing game as he has gained 234 yards on the season. Leading at receiver for the Utes is Darren Carrington III who has 918 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season. Overall Utah is far from the highest powered offense that West Virginia has faced this season but the style of play will look similar to what Mountaineer fans see in the Big 12 week to week.
The pressing question is whether West Virginia’s 3-3-5 can stop Utah’s offense. An encouraging sign is that Utah doesn’t have an experienced and prolific quarterback like Baker Mayfield or Mason Rudolph. While Tyler Huntley has good mobility and athleticism his numbers tell you that he is prone to throwing interceptions as most young quarterbacks are. West Virginia will likely stick to its zone defensive pass schemes so defenders won’t turn their back to the quarterback while in coverage. Additionally, zone defense can help to limit the running back passing game. Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson will create a plan trying to stop the running game of Utah, which should be an easier assignment for the Mountaineers as they’ve had more success against zone running teams in comparison to power style offenses. Utah will likely try to attack WVU on the ground as the Mountaineers have given up 204.8 rushing yards per game. It will be a tough challenge for the Mountaineers but luckily the Utes don’t have the powerful passing game to go with their running game like Oklahoma, TCU or Oklahoma State had. WVU’s SPUR Kyzir White will play a key role as he will be called upon to support the run but will also provide pass defense against key receivers for Utah. The five defensive backs in West Virginia’s defense will give protection against multiple formations that Utah may try to use.
West Virginia won’t have to substitute or call a time out when Utah switches to different offensive formations because of them having the additional safety(SPUR) on the field. With Utah using tight ends, receivers and multiple running backs it is important that WVU will not be distracted by the odd personnel on the field. An example of this would be if Utah had three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end on the field. They could have their tight end on the line of scrimmage, beside the tackle, the running back in the backfield and three receivers out wide. Utah could quickly motion both the running back and the tight end out wide to give an empty backfield and five eligible receivers lined up wide on the field. The Utes like to change formations often during games and have had success against teams that run a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
West Virginia’s player personnel is well equipped to stop this tactic by having three linebackers and five defensive backs on the field where other teams would either have to call a time out or be left in a mismatch. The real challenge the Mountaineers will face is stopping the Utah running game and forcing them off the field quickly. West Virginia will likely have several situations where their offense struggles and the defense is forced back onto the field after a quick series and it is crucial for the defense in these situations to rally.
There will be a lot of pressure on the West Virginia defense in this game. Utah has averaged 29.5 points per game which normally wouldn’t concern Mountaineer fans but without Will Grier West Virginia’s offensive ability will likely be limited. The defense is going to have to step up and have a stellar performance for the Mountaineers to get a win in Dallas.