This year’s Poinsettia Bowl may not carry the cachet of last season’s high-profile matchup (Boise State vs. T.C.U.), but the game will feature one team coming off of a B.C.S. bowl appearance and another whose preseason expectations included hopes of a B.C.S. spot of its own. Utah, as we know, rolled through the 2008 season undefeated before routing a talented Alabama squad in the Sugar Bowl. While the Utes slipped to 9-3 this regular season, Utah remains among the top 25 teams in the nation. California, on the other hand, has seen itself slide from a trendy pick for the best team in the Pac-10 in the preseason to a disappointing 8-4, sixth in the conference.
San Diego Country Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN
Like its more staid neighbors in Provo, Utah is in the midst of one of the great periods in program history. The Utes may not be playing in another B.C.S. bowl, but even after dropping one to rival B.Y.U. to end the season, they find themselves ranked and with a shot at a second consecutive double-digit win season. Such a finish was far from a certainty early in the season. The Utes have missed the consistency at quarterback of year’s past, though that position seems to be more settled following the promotion of the freshman Jordan Wynn, who replaced the JUCO transfer Terrance Cain in the starting lineup with five games left in the regular season. The defense has done its part (again), limiting opponents to less than 20 points and 175 yards passing per game. Cal quarterback Kevin Riley would be wise to keep an eye on free safety Robert Johnson, who leads the Utes with five interceptions; that total gives him 12 over his three seasons with the program. Utah did drop its early-season Pac-10 matchup, losing by 31-24 at Oregon in September.
Yes, losing star running back Jahvid Best could serve as a valid excuse for a significant decline in offensive productivity. (Shane Vereen, a sophomore, has actually picked up the slack in the running game quite well.) Nevertheless, there is no excuse for scoring 5 less points per game this regular season compared to last, and there is certainly no excuse for the pitiful performance Cal put forth against premier Pac-10 competion: 3 points each against Oregon and U.S.C. and 14 against Oregon State. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Golden Bears scored only 10 points in a disheartening 32-point loss to underdog Washington in the season finale. Suffice to say, this is a team heading into postseason play with confidence issues, in dire need of a win over a top 25 opponent in order to propel itself into the off-season with some semblance of momentum. The good news? Despite periods of inconsistency, Cal’s 3-4 defense has had its moments, especially against the run. Getting to the quarterback has been an issue — linemen Tyson Alualu (an all-conference pick) and Cameron Jordan are the only players with more than two sacks — limiting the defense’s ability to stop the pass.