Colorado Utah Football

Utah running back Zack Moss (2) breaks a tackle attempt by Colorado’s George Frazier (5) during their November game. The WVU defense will have to focus on Moss during the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

When you break down the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl matchup between Utah and WVU, you’ll notice a stunning similarity in the teams’ rushing attack.

While the Mountaineers finished the regular season ranked No. 72 nationally, averaging 160.4 yards, the Utes finished No. 70, averaging 161.3.

A difference in the Dec. 26 game, though, is Justin Crawford, ranked No. 41 nationally, won’t be playing for West Virginia. He’s sitting out to prepare for the 2018 NFL draft. On the other hand, Utah back Zack Moss, ranked No. 45, is ready to go. And WVU’s defense must be prepared for that.

Here’s the deal. Heading into the season, Utah’s run game was suspect. The Utes had to replace four offensive linemen. Also, gone was runner Joe Williams, who rushed for 1,438 yards.

So the job went to Moss, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound sophomore. And while WVU’s Crawford is heading out, Moss has been coming on.

In Utah’s last game against Colorado, Moss had 196 rushing yards. He had 153 yards against UCLA. Against USC it was 141.

In the 28-27 loss to the Trojans, he reportedly caught a swing pass, delivered a forearm shiver to All-Pac-12 linebacker Cameron Smith, went 10 more yards – and then smiled widely. The television cameras caught it all.

“I did a lot of good things in that game,” Moss told the Gazette-Mail. “I was very sharp in my pass protection — not just running the ball.”

Moss is a terrific indicator of Utah’s chances at winning a game. In the last six Utes’ games, Utah won if Moss had more than 55 yards. One has to go back to that USC game on Oct. 14 to break that pattern. And in that, Utah lost by a single point to what is now the nation’s No. 8 team.

Oh, and if the name rings a bell, perhaps it’s because Moss is related to former NFL receivers Santana and Sinorice Moss.

“They are cousins on my dad’s side,” Utah’s Moss said. “I talked to them a few times when I was committed to Miami before I committed here.”

The Ute was indeed committed to the Hurricanes until Al Golden was fired by UM back in 2015. He looked at his other offers, which included Utah and Cincinnati.

And then he looked at his Hallandale High [Florida] high school teammates.

“Two of the guys I was recruited with were also from Florida, Tyler Huntley and Demari Simpkins,” Moss said.

So from South Florida to Utah the trio went – where they now form the core of the Utes’ offense as true sophomores.

While Moss averages 5.3 yards per carry and has nine touchdowns, Simpkins has 27 catches for 337 yards and Huntley is the quarterback. He’s thrown for 2,246 yards, hitting on 65 percent of his passes, and has 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Huntley is expected back from an injury after missing the Colorado game.

“I think it means a great deal,” Moss said. “He brings a spark to our offense. I mean, it’s just good to have him back.”

Utah averages 256.4 passing yards. And now Moss and the running game has grown. The sophomore has been called both a violent and explosive runner.

“I think I exploit those traits pretty good,” he said. “I like to call myself an all-around back. I like to think I can do a little of everything. An every-down back.”

Moss, by the way, said he spoke to WVU during the recruiting process, but “it wasn’t anything serious.”

“We talked a few times and that was about it,” said the back.

The bowl game will be played at 1:30 p.m. ET and televised by ESPN.

Mitch Vingle can be reached at 304-348-4827 or mitchvingle@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter@MitchVingle.