Date: December 26th, 2017
Time: 1:30pm EST
Venue: Cotton Bowl, Dallas Texas
Streaming: WatchESPN or the WatchESPN app
Radio: Click HERE for a complete list of radio affiliates in West Virginia. If you live outside of the state, or don’t live close enough to a radio affiliate, you can listen to the Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG on TuneIn Radio.
Spread: Utah -7 (Oddshark)
Thread update - Looks like we’re officially wearing gold-blue-gold. So close to that classic look that I was praying for. Oh well. Should look good next to Utah, and that’s all that counts. LET’S GO!
Utah appears to be wearing their standard crimson-white-crimson combination. I’ve always loved those two colors together, and Utah’s strip is no different. Even better, it should contrast beautifully with our own look.
Know the Enemy
Series History: (0-1). This will be the first time we've played the Utes this century, but I think we all remember that 32-6 beatdown they laid on us in 1964, which means you can bet that our guys will go out there on Tuesday with vengeance in their hearts. People don't forget.
Record: (6-6). Utah's resume is about on par with our own - in general they beat who they should've beat and lost to who they should've lost to. It deserves to be said though that they seemed to save their best football for their best opponents, losing to USC, Stanford, and Washington by a combined 7 points.
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham. Whittingham has been at Utah for 24 years, starting as a defensive line coach in 1994 and working his way up from there. He's spent the last 13 as the head man, and has quietly been one of the more successful coaches in the country, even winning National Coach of the Year after going undefeated in 2008. Of particular note for us is his 10-1 bowl record - those 10 wins are tied for second among active coaches and the record yields the best bowl win % in NCAA history.
Offensive Coordinator: Troy Taylor. Taylor is in his first year in SLC after helping Eastern Washington lead the FCS in passing in 2016. He has solid experience at the college level, but seems to be most acclaimed for his success at the high school level, where his offenses set California state records for passing in four consecutive seasons.
Defensive Coordinator: Morgan Scalley. Scalley is a Utah lifer, starting as a graduate assistant in 2006 and spending all of his 10 years in coaching in Salt Lake City. He's in just his second year running Whitingham's defense, but early returns seem promising with the Utes finishing in the top half of the Pac 12 in both scoring and total defense in each year.
By the Numbers
Utah doesn't necessarily have one area where they excel, but they don't have many where they're outright poor either - they're somewhere between average and good pretty much across the board.
I think the X factor, as it so often is, will be the turnover battle. Both teams are fond of coughing up the ball (Utah has 24 turnovers on the year, West Virginia has 22), so whichever team is able to capitalize on that should have a leg up.
When we have the ball
Players to watch: S Chase Hansen, LB Sunia Tauteoli, LB Kavita Laufatasaga, CB Julian Blackmon, DE Bradlee Anae
Simply put, the Ute’s defense is one of the strongest units in the Pac 12. They’re ranked 44th nationally in total defense and 43rd in scoring, holding 10 of their 12 opponents below their season average for points.
Their four-man front is anchored in the middle by seniors Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, but the real playmaker is PFF All-Pac 12 performer Bradlee Anae off the edge. Anae only registered 37 tackles this year, but 10 of those were for a loss and 7 were sacks. I like both McKivitz and Cajuste to win the matchup, but Anae should provide a great challenge nonetheless.
Linebackers Kavita Laufatasaga and Sunia Tauteoli may be their two most disruptive players, finishing 1-2 on the team on tackles with the latter chipping in 10 more TFL of his own. These guys get sideline-to-sideline very well, so getting them blocked will be crucial to the success of our running game.
The back-end is big and physical, with just one of the five starters standing less than 6' tall, and features two more All-Conference level players in corner Julian Blackmon and safety Chase Hansen. Running mates Chase Hughes, Corrion Ballard, and Jaylon Johnson are no slouches either, and all told they have six guys back there who have intercepted a pass this year.
Top to bottom, I don't know if I'd put them up there with Texas or TCU or Virginia Tech as one of the best we've played, but they definitely have talent at all three levels and should give our offense a lot to think about.
Key to the game: Put Chugs in positions to succeed, stay true to who we are, have some fun
Even with a new starter at quarterback, I expect us to look very much the same as we have for most of the year - we're going to run it to set up our vertical passing attack. That's who we are, and that's who we should continue to be. However, that doesn't mean we can't throw Utah a curveball or two. We've had four weeks to come up with some new ways to get guys involved, and I think we should take as many opportunities as we can to give them something unconventional to look at.
I'm expecting to see more of that Wildcat look with Kennedy McKoy, which means we'll probably see a lot more of Martell Pettaway, too. I'd also like to see a trick play or two, and maybe even some new looks that finally involve a tight end (gasp!). But I think that general theme is the key - do what we do, but have some fun with it. Chugs has been at his best when we've unshackled him, and I think mixing in a bit of early trickeration will help him exhale and play his best football.
When they have the ball
Players to watch: QB Tyler Huntley, RB Zack Moss, WR Darren Carrington II
Utah’s offense isn’t as good as many that we’ve seen in the Big 12, but they’re pretty effective in their own way, averaging 29.5 points and 418 yards per game, good for 56th and 65th percentile nationally, respectively. Strategically, they like to run the ball to set up the pass in a way that reminds me a bit of Virginia Tech - lots of read option, lots of quarterback runs, and lots of play action stuff off of that. It’s fairly conservative, but as we saw earlier this year, it can be tough to stop.
Tyler Huntley figures to start at quarterback despite missing the last game of the season through injury, and he actually has some very nice weapons on the outside in the passing game. Darren Carrington is the go-to, nearly doubling the number of receptions by their next best guy on the way to All-Pac 12 honors. He's a quintessential chain mover - top 10 nationally in 10+ yard receptions and top 15 in receptions that went for first downs. Nobody else is averaging more than 2.8 receptions per game, but expect Raelon Singleton, Siaosi Wilson (the big play guy), Demari Simpkins, and Samson Nacua to all be involved. They also throw their share of balls to the running backs, so that's a threat we'll have to be aware of, as well.
Their ground game doesn’t blow you away in terms of explosiveness (161 ypg, 4.1 ypc, 10+ yards on 14.6% of carries), but as I mentioned, it’s very useful in setting up the rest of what they do offensively. The workhorse is Zack Moss, who went over 1000 yards this year with 9 touchdowns on nearly 5.3 yards per carry. Huntley, in the 9 games he played in, chipped in with just over 50 yards per game and 4 touchdowns of his own. Together they combine for more than 30 carries per game and represent the bulk of the threat - if we can stop those two we have a good chance of stopping them.
Key to the game: Stop the run, force Huntley to beat us with his arm
As I just mentioned, Moss and Huntley are crucial to what they do offensively, with Huntley in particular being a pretty hard-nosed runner for a quarterback. Honestly, he reminds me of Skyler Howard, except that, by the numbers at least, he's a bit more accurate as a passer. However, like Skyler, he struggles a bit when you get him into obvious passing situations. On the season, he's completing 68.5% of his passes on 1st and 2nd down, but that number drops to just 50% on 3rd down and is even lower when you look at 3rd and more than 7. That's what we need to do to them - slow down the run on 1st and 2nd down and get them into 3rd and long. If we fail, 3rd and manageable could trigger some very traumatic flashbacks to the season's opening weekend, but if we're successful I think we have a very good chance of consistently getting off the field and ultimately winning the game.
I'm not going to pretend that I've watched the Utes enough to have their special teams clocked, but I think we can be sure that they have a strong kicking game with Matt Gay earning consensus All-American honors after making 27/31 field goals. As for the rest of their units, they all seem middle-of-the-road based on the numbers. They're a little better than average at both covering and returning punts, and a little worse than average on both sides of kickoffs. Should be a good test for our own units.
There’s a couple reasons to be concerned about this one. Beyond our obvious Heisman-shaped absence at quarterback and Justin Crawford’s decision to protect his future earnings potential (godspeed, fella, thanks for a fun two years), we’re playing a team we’ve never seen before, and one that, despite their record, is pretty good. More than enough uncertainty to cause concern. However, there are also a few reasons to be optimistic.
First, unknowns for us mean unknowns for them. They only have about 7 quarters of Chugs to watch on film, and only about 5 or 6 plays of McKoy in that Wildcat look that we’re sure to see a lot of on Tuesday. It’ll be exciting to finally see what Chugs can do with some consistent first-team reps and a few weeks to prepare, and even more so to see what wrinkles Spavital can come up with to put our guys in positions to succeed.
Second, Utah is much better at home than they are on the road. Records aside, their offensive and defensive numbers pretty much flip away from the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles. Some of that may be due to the nature of the opponents (3 of the 4 ranked games were on the road), but it’s still worth mentioning that they were a much better team in crimson than they were in white this year.
Overall, I’m expecting a pretty good matchup. We appear to be slightly better on offense while they probably have the better defense. As I mentioned above though, I’m guessing that the turnover battle will tell the story. I think we win that battle, and I think we win the war.
West Virginia 27 Utah 23