The assumptions going into the final week of the college football season were that Cal would easily beat Washington and go to either the Sun Bowl or the Emerald Bowl. But just when the Bears seemed headed in one direction, they went another way. They were thumped 42-10 by the Huskies and fell from second place in the Pac-10 to tie USC for fifth. Such surprising turns of events were typical for the Bears in 2009, making them a rather unpredictable opponent for the Utes in the Dec. 23 Poinsettia Bowl.
Ranked 12th in the preseason, Cal (8-4) not only failed to win the Pac-10 as some thought it would, but was embarrassed in all of its losses, losing the four games by a combined score of 145-30. The loss to Washington was perhaps the most surprising because the Bears were coming off a 34-28 upset of Stanford. Cal coach Jeff Tedford said in media reports he didn't believe his team would let the loss to the Huskies affect their play in the Poinsettia Bowl, predicting his team will be hungrier for a win because of it.
"I told the players that it's fortunate that we're getting to play again because you don't want to end the season on that note," said Teford, the former Oregon offensive coordinator who has coached the Bears since 2002. "We're looking forward to it. We're anxious for it." The trip to the Poinsettia Bowl is the seventh straight bowl appearance for the program, which is a school record for most consecutive bowl appearances. The Bears have won their last four bowl games, including the 2008 Emerald Bowl when they defeated Miami 24-17. This year the Bears were projected to make their first run at the BCS since 2004, when they finished the regular season ranked No. 4, but were passed over by the Rose Bowl for Texas, which beat Michigan. Cal went on to lose to Texas Tech 45-21 in the Holiday Bowl.
The BCS talk ended rather early this season after the Bears lost to Oregon and USC. Judging by the scores alone, it seems once opponents figure out the Bears' offense, Cal hasn't been able to adjust to move the ball effectively. In their wins, the Bears are averaging more than 40 points a game. They averaged less than eight points in their losses. Cal quarterback Kevin Riley has thrown for 2,636 yards and 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions to lead the Bears. Helping him carry the offense through most of the season was running back Jahvid Best. He started the year as a Heisman candidate, but missed the final three games with a concussion and back injury. His status for the bowl game is uncertain. The Bears do have a strong backup in Shane Vereen who averaged 148 yards in the last three games. Defensively, the Bears are giving up 24 points a game and rank just 108th nationally in pass defense, allowing 260.9 yards a game.
The Utes started installing their game plan Friday for the Bears. Despite what many perceive as a subpar season for a team that began with such high expectations, the Bears are still a strong opponent in Utah coach Kyle Whittingham's estimation. He called the Bears a "typical Pac-10 team." "They are very fast and they are very aggressive," he said.