Written by Franklin Markel
DALLAS, TEXAS- With Christmas now in the rearview it is time again for Mountaineer football. With only hours until kickoff we break down who has the advantages, and where, as the Mountaineers take on the Utes in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl in Dallas, TX on Tuesday.
West Virginia Advantages
West Virginia got some great news when David Sills announced he will return for his senior season. This season he leads FBS in touchdowns. But he’s not the only weapon WVU has, Gary Jennings has over 1000 yards on the season and Ku’Ruan White, with 978 yards and 11 touchdowns, will play his last game for the Gold and Blue. The Utes don’t have nearly as many weapons. Darren Carrington is the Utes number one wide receiver with 918 yards and 9 touchdowns this season. Raelon Singleton has 479 yards and 4 touchdown grabs as well. The rest of the WR group for Utah is young and almost non existent. Two freshman start, and combine for less than 400 yards. Both groups have talent but WVU has the depth.
The WVU offensive line has to say a challenging goodbye after this game when Kyle Bosh ships off to the NFL. But there’s good young talent coming up. Matt Jones is continuing to make good starts as just a sophomore and Yodny Cajuste announced that he will return next season. That is a big plus for WVU as he is very talented. The Utah Offensive Line is very experienced, starting 3 seniors and 1 junior. Jackson Barton, Salesi Wilson, and Lo Falekma are all seniors and make the left side of the offensive line very talented for Utah, but they struggle on the right. The left half of the line gives the Utes a solid run game. It’s close, but WVU has the advantage.
The WVU linebackers lose a big name in 2018, Al-Rasheed Benton will say goodbye after a wonderful senior season with 102 tackles. The good news is that sophomore David Long will return. After missing 4 games this season he piled up 69 tackles, he’s going to make plenty of plays against Utah. Dylan Tonkery, the freshman, has also made his mark felt this season. WVU has a very talented Linebacker group and the Utes are not quite as good. David Luafatasaga leads the team in tackles with 76, besides that the Utes have average playmakers in this position. WVU has a big time advantage.
WVU has a big defensive backs advantage over Utah, Kenney Robinson, Mike Daniels, Devon Askew-Henry, Elijah Battle, and Kyzir White continue to play great defense. Aside from the OU game, they’ve played some special defense the second half of the season. With that said, the Oklahoma game was a all out failure by the defense and I dont think a single group can be blamed. The loss seems to serve as motivation for this game and I think the defense will play very well. The Utes defensive backs struggle, Chase Hansen has 51 tackles on the season and Julian Blackman has 46 tackles and 2 interceptions as just a sophomore. The other big name is Corrion Ballard with 44 tackles and 2 interceptions this season. Despite these bright spots, the WVU defensive backs are more talented and more experienced.
There was some chance that Will Grier could return for this bowl game. He’s not coming back just yet, but WVU got a great early Christmas gift when they found out he would be for his senior season. Starting in his absence has been Chris Chugunov. Chugunov has 407 yards passing this season and in his first full game, vs Oklahoma, he had a 50% completion rate for 137 yards. For Utah, Tyler Huntley has been taking the snaps all season. He has 2,246 yards passing and has thrown just 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. All in all, not a very good TD-INT rate. From a talent perspective both quarterbacks are very comparable, but the starting experience for Hundley gives Utah the advantage.
If Justin Crawford were playing, WVU would have the advantage. But he’s not and will instead prepare for the NFL draft. This is not a major blow for the Mountaineers, however, as Kennedy McKoy will start in his place. The Sophomore saw a lot of time in the wildcat formation last game vs Oklahoma and it was very successful, he finished with 137 yards on 25 rushes and scored 3 TDs. Backing him up will be sophomore Martell Pettaway. Pettaway has not seen a lot of carries this season but had a stellar game last season against Iowa State where he ran for 181 yards. These two young RB’s should take the on the spotlight very well and this is a great preview of what next seasons backfield will look like. The Utah Utes have a star RB in young Zach Moss. He’s had 1,023 yards and 9 TD’s in his Sophomore season and a very bright future ahead of him. He finished the regular season with a 196 yard and 2 TD performance vs Colorado. This is a very close matchup, but Moss’s explosive games give Utah the slight backfield advantage.
WVU has a young defensive line, none younger than Lamonte McDougle, the freshman who was just awarded a spot on the freshman all american team by ESPN. Reese Donahue and Adam Schuler are just sophomores but still on the starting DL. The WVU Defensive Line is no match for Utah’s, one of the best in the country with up to 3 future NFL players. Kylie Fritz is the Left End in the Utah scheme, he has 22 tackles and a forced fumble on the season. Filipo Mokofisi has 31 tackles and 3 sacks and has also forced a fumble this season. Sunia Lotulelei, arguably the best player in the group, has 64 tackles and 1 interception, he is also a force on special teams with a blocked kick. The Utah defensive line is one of the best in the country and have a big advantage over the Mountaineers unit.
West Virginia has nothing overly special on special teams. Utah, however, has a very special special teams. Place Kicker Matt Gay has won multiple awards as the best kicker in the country, he is a perfect 37 for 37 on point afters and is 27 for 31 on field goal attempts. The Punter is Mitch Wishnowsky who averages an outstanding 44.2 yards a kick. The two kickers on Utah give them a big advantage in the special teams battle.
The Mountaineers and Utes are very evenly matched and the Mountaineers would blow out Utah with Grier under center, but he will remain out with his finger injury. WVU should win this game, I think they are more talented than the Utes, but I have a feeling that might not happen. Utah has a explosive running game and a very talented defense. I think it’s close but Utah comes out on top. 28-24 Utah.