MORGANTOWN — WVU football fans may scoff at the 6-6 record of the Utah Utes team their Mountaineers will tangle with in the Dec. 26 Heart of Dallas Bowl, at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
One thing is certain: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham understands how to win bowl games.
Whittingham is 10-1 in the postseason since taking the Utes’ reins in 2005, when Urban Meyer left the Salt Lake City school for Florida.
That’s a 91 percent bowl winning percentage, the best in NCAA history.
How has he done it?
“Our secret formula is, our players prepare hard and do it the right way,” said Whittingham, whose teams have won four straight bowls. “That’s what it’s all about. There’s no routine or process that is super top secret.
“It’s just that our guys take a lot of pride in bowl games and prepare right and look at it as a chance to win another game. We approach it that way with how we prepare in practice. It’s a product of our players’ work ethic and preparation.”
Utah’s postseason fate came down to the final game of the regular season, as the Utes beat Colorado, 34-13, to secure bowl eligibility with six wins.
WVU coach Dana Holgorsen knows all about the Utes and their bowl tradition, which includes a 16-4 all-time record in the postseason.
“The great thing about playing in bowl games in general is, you’re not going to play anybody bad,” Holgorsen said. “To play the likes of Utah, of the Pac-12, is an honor. We’re excited about that. We’re very aware of their history, especially in bowl games.
“I think they’ve won them all recently. It’s going to be a challenge for us. Coach Whittingham does a great job with that program. It’s a national brand. We’re excited about this match-up.”
WVU and Utah have played once, with the Utes pounding the Mountaineers, 32-6, in the 1964 Liberty Bowl, in Atlantic City, N.J.
The Mountaineers are happy to receive a chance to play Utah in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
After the Liberty (Iowa State) and Cactus (Kansas State) bowls passed on WVU on Sunday, the Mountaineers had their choice of the Heart of Dallas Bowl or the Birmingham Bowl.
WVU picked the Heart of Dallas, which left the last Big 12 team without a bowl spot, Texas Tech, heading for Birmingham.
“It was made clear that if we had the opportunity to go to the Heart of Dallas Bowl our coaching staff and student-athletes would be excited about that,” WVU athletic director Shane Lyons said.
“It ended up that the cards fell that way. It’s a great opportunity to play against a Power 5 institution and a Pac-12 institution.”
Whittingham hails Holgorsen as “one of the great offensive minds in college football” and believes his Mountaineers’ record is misleading.
“They’re 7-5, but four of their five losses were to ranked teams,” Whittingham said. “We know we absolutely have our hands full in this game, and they have our respect.”
Whether the Mountaineers will have starting quarterback Will Grier for the game remains uncertain.
Grier broke a hand and dislocated a finger in the Nov. 18 Texas game. He did not play against Oklahoma in the regular-season finale.
When asked about Grier’s status Sunday night, Holgorsen said, “Not very good.”
“He goes back to the doctor next week,” Holgorsen said. “I’m going down to meet with him in Charlotte next week. Everybody is out on the road recruiting. The players are in finals. We have to get him back to the doctor to look at it and evaluate it after that.”
Holgorsen said he is confident Chris Chugunov, who started the Oklahoma game, is capable of directing the offense against Utah.
“I was excited about Chris Chugunov and the way he took the reins against Texas in a bad situation,” Holgorsen said.
“He went out and did well and got better against Oklahoma. I think he’s fully capable of being able to take our team, with a lot of prep work, and play against a good Utah team.”
Utah’s starting quarterback, Kyle Huntley, has dealt with a shoulder injury, but the Utes hope to have him back for the bowl.
Huntley threw for 2,246 yards this season, with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
“You never know for certain,” Whittingham said. “It’s Dec. 3, 23 days out. I think it’s looking very positive.”
NOTE: Holgorsen has a tie with a Utah staff member, as he roomed at Iowa Wesleyan with Doug Elisaia, the Utes’ director of football sports performance. “He was 6-foot-1, 290 (pounds). He was really a bad dude,” Holgorsen said. “I never tested him. He protected me most of the time. I’m not going to test him in pregame. Hopefully, he can protect me from anything that could go awry in pregame. He’s a really good guy. He’s done a great job for coach Whittingham there.”