MORGANTOWN — Urban Meyer helped put the Utah football program on the map during the mid-2000s, winning a Fiesta Bowl championship over Pitt as a non-BCS school, in 2005.
Meyer then left for Florida and was replaced by defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham, who had difficult shoes to fill.
Since then, Whittingham led the Utes to a 9-1 bowl mark and is even credited with the win in the Fiesta Bowl, since he and Meyer were considered “co-coaches,” with Meyer already accepting the Florida job.
At 10-1 in bowl games, Whittingham’s 91 win percentage is the best in college football history with a minimum of five games. His 10 wins are the second-most among active coaches, behind Alabama’s Nick Saban (11).
Whittingham will look for win No. 11 on Dec. 26, against WVU (7-5), in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“Whatever they are doing during bowl games, I’m probably going to try to corner him and figure it out once this thing is over with,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “They have done a great job with their program.”
Whittingham not only kept Utah afloat as a non-BCS school after Meyer left, he helped transition the Utes into a competitive Power-5 team, joining the Pac-12, in 2011.
Perhaps his most impressive coaching job was in 2008, finishing undefeated and knocking off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Holgorsen compared his program with Utah’s, believing approaches to recruiting and markets are similar.
“Salt Lake City is obviously a thriving market,” he said. “Their recruiting base is much like ours, just on opposite ends of the country. They recruit up and down the West Coast, and they get a lot of kids from all over the place. They recruit junior-college kids as well.
“We don’t have a lot of crossover with them at all, obviously. They are more California junior colleges, and we are more East Coast junior colleges. They do a nice job with their talent.”
Utah (6-6) is 9-14 all-time against Big 12 schools, Whittingham played against TCU six times while the programs were in the Mountain West. Other than that, there is not much familiarity between the Utes and the Big 12 and the Mountaineers and the
Pac-12. The last time WVU played a Pac-12 school was in the 2016 Cactus Bowl, against Arizona State.
The only time Utah and WVU faced each other was in the 1964 Liberty Bowl, in Atlantic City, N.J. — a 32-6 Utes win.
Whittingham has seen enough film to know what the Mountaineers bring to the table, though.
“Well, first off, they have really good skill on the outside on offense with receivers all over the place,” he said. “They have playmakers. That will be a challenge for us. They run a 3-3 stack on defense, so that can present some problems, as well. We have had extra time to prepare, so hopefully we will be ready to go [Tuesday].”
Whittingham is referencing receivers David Sills, Ka’Raun White, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms, but they will be without quarterback Will Grier as Chris Chugunov gets his second career start. The Utes have the No. 53 pass defense, allowing
214 yards per game through the air, so it’s a match-up that likely favors Utah.
Like WVU, the Utes could be without their starting quarterback, Tyler Huntley, who has been battling a shoulder injury all season. Backup Troy Williams ran for two touchdowns in the season-ending win, against Colorado.
Whittingham said, barring injury, Huntley will likely be his starter against the Mountaineers.
“Well, he looks good right now,” Whittingham said. “Barring unforeseen things, I would imagine Tyler will get the start.”
As for Williams, he’ll be ready if needed.
“I’ll just be ready for whatever happens,” he said. “That’s what it’s looking like.”
Whatever decision Whittingham makes will likely be the right one. That’s how it goes for him and the Utes in bowl games.