DALLAS — Utah, again, ended its season on a high note, overwhelming a West Virginia team that failed to gain any traction for much of the game.
Utah’s 30-14 win over the Mountaineers caps off an up-and-down season with an important win, and one that gives experience to a lot of the younger players that contributed to the season.
The following are three thoughts following Utah’s victory.
Kyle Whittingham doesn’t lose bowl games
Save one lousy bowl game in Las Vegas against a surging Boise State, a Whittingham-led team has become a lock for a bowl victory. His 11-1 bowl record leads college football and is an impressive feat given the high demands of a college coach and juggling an ever-changing roster.
Whittingham credits his success to being “lucky,” but the consistency speaks otherwise as a successful coach. Although Whittingham doesn’t like to take all the credit, it’s his style of coaching that has helped Utah win 11 bowls under his leadership.
Whittingham said there isn’t a secret formula to the success, but the willingness to prepare for a bowl game in the same fashion to that of a regular-season game. Utah may not gain the five-star recruits, but he’s found a winning strategy, even in a 6-6 season.
Defense came to play
Utah’s defense, particularly it’s defensive line, saved their best performance for last. In a season where the line struggled to get to the quarterback, Utah’s Lowell Lotulelei, Filipo Mokofisi and Kylie Fitts were living in the backfield, forcing little out of an offense for the Mountaineers.
The Mountaineers only managed 81 yards of total offense in the first half and had only three first downs through the third quarter. Utah snuffed out West Virginia’s attempted rushing attack and forced them into a one-dimensional offense that struggled to gain any footing.
Utah’s defense was aggressive in the turnover front, too, forcing two fumbles — both of which were recovered by Cody Barton — and two key interceptions by Julian Blackmon to eliminate any sense of momentum the Mountaineers tried to gain. Blackmon’s effort led him to be the Heart of Dallas Bowl MVP.
The defense had several other turnover opportunities but dropped relatively easy passes to their direction. But that’s being nitpicky in a game where Utah’s defense won in the trenches and dictated the tone of the game.
Another hot-and-cold offensive performance
The offense has improved this season, but there are still plenty of areas to be critical of. First and foremost is play-calling. Quarterback Tyler Huntley has shown that he can be a phenomenal quarterback that frustrates opposing defense, but it seems as though he tries to be the main focus of the offense when there is a great rusher in Zack Moss standing right next to him.
Moss broke the game open on a 58-yard rushing touchdown in Utah’s first series of the game. But Moss would only get a few more carries in the first half in a bizarre turn of events. He would finish with 150 rushing yards on 20 carries, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Moss doesn’t need to get all the touches, but a mixed approach with he, Huntley and a passing threat could make the Utes unstoppable.
For example, look at two of Utah’s rushing touchdowns. Huntley effectively used Moss as a decoy and was easily able to walk into the end zone for scores. This obviously won’t work every play or drive, but mixing it up would help. No, I’m not an offensive coordinator and don’t have all the insight, but Utah has been at its best when it keeps opposing defenses on its toes.
Huntley finished throwing for 165 yards on 12-of-26 passing and rushed for 57 yards and two touchdown on 25 carries. He struggled to connect with receivers at times, overthrowing and under throwing passes, but his receiver didn’t help him by dropping several easy balls — many of which would have gone for big gains or a score.
All in all, Utah’s offense is improving, but it’s still not firing on all cylinders. Consistency and a maturing group coming back should help next season.