West Virginia looks to cap season with win in Heart of Dallas Bowl
Midway through the month of November, West Virginia was ranked in the Top 25 and was in the running for a spot in the Big 12 Conference Championship game. But then the Mountaineers got hit by a disastrous injury to their most important player, quarterback Will Grier, and limped into the postseason with two straight losses that dropped them down in the conference's bowl game pecking order.
West Virginia (75) will look to cap its fourth consecutive winning season with a victory over Utah, which finished fifth in the Pacific 12 Conference, in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26 in the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium in Big D.
The Heart of Dallas Bowl is the final of six Big 12-tied bowls to select a team from the conference. It was founded in 2011 (when the Cotton Bowl left its namesake stadium for AT&T Stadium in Arlington) and will host its eighth game this year. West Virginia will be the third Big 12 team to play in this bowl game.
"We're thrilled to death to be able to be in Dallas to play a bowl game here this year," Holgorsen said. "It's exciting to play in the Big 12 hub. The Big 12 has been really good to West Virginia University and really good to our football program, so being able to be there to play a very quality Utah team is something we're really excited about."
West Virginia was in the running for a much more prestigious bowl before Grier injured his throwing hand in the first quarter of the Mountaineers' 28-14 home loss to Texas. He also missed West Virginia's final regular season game at Oklahoma, a 59-31 defeat to the Sooners, who then beat TCU in the Big 12 Conference Championship game and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Whether or not Grier, the nation's seventh-most efficient passer, will be available for the Heart of Dallas Bowl is uncertain.
"Will goes back to the doctor next week. I'm going to go down there and meet with them in Charlotte," Holgorsen said. "We've got to get him back to the doctor to look at it and evaluate it after that."
Chris Chugunov started in place of Grier against Oklahoma and the sophomore completed half of his 20 pass attempts for 137 yards in the 38-point loss. Most of West Virginia's offense came from backup tailback Kennedy McKoy out of the Wildcat formation. The sophomore ran for a career-high 137 yards and scored three of the Mountaineers' four rushing touchdowns.
"I was excited with the way Chris took the reins against Texas in a bad situation and I thought he went out there and played well," Holgorsen said. "He got better against Oklahoma as well so I think he's capable of being able to take our team with a lot of prep work and go out there and play again against a good Utah team."
This is the fourth-straight bowl game for Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia's sixth with him as head coach. The Mountaineers are just 2-3 in bowl games under Holgorsen.
The Mountaineers defeated Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl and Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl after the 2015 season. They've lost to Syracuse in the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl, to Texas A&M in the 2014 Liberty Bowl, and to Miami in the 2016 Camping World Bowl.
The 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl will mark the 36th appearance by a WVU football team in a bowl game, which is the 26th-most appearances in FBS history. The Mountaineers are 10-15 overall in bowl games.
The last trip to the Lone Star State for a bowl game came in 1987 when the Mountaineers lost to Oklahoma State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso. West Virginia has played once before in the Cotton Bowl stadium, as the Mountaineers defeated SMU 28-22 there on Oct. 4, 1975 during coach Bobby Bowden's final season in Morgantown.
The West Virginia defense, which performed much better in late-season wins against Iowa State and Kansas State, struggled mightily against Oklahoma's high-powered offensive attack in the regular-season finale as the Sooners piled up 646 total yards and punted only once, late in the third quarter.
West Virginia ranks 16th in total offense, averaging 485.2 yards per game (with most of the damage done with Grier behind center), and 110th in total defense, giving up 452.5 yards per contest.
The Utes, who amassed a 6-6 record and 3-6 in the Pac 12 finished fifth in the South division and had to beat Colorado on the final weekend of the regular season to earn a postseason bid.
These two teams have met just once before, a 32-6 Utah victory in the 1964 Liberty Bowl in Atlantic City, New Jersey. That is notably the first major college football bowl game played indoors.