Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sporting News: Utah Cal Preview

Utah and California entered this season with their sights set on reaching a BCS bowl or possibly playing for a national title. Inconsistent play dashed those hopes.  The No. 23 Utes try to extend the nation's longest postseason winning streak to nine when they face the Golden Bears in the Poinsettia Bowl at San Diego on Dec. 23.  Utah (9-3) entered the national spotlight last season, going 13-0 and beating then-No. 4 Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl to finish second in the rankings. That success propelled the Utes to a spot in the AP preseason poll this year for the first time, cracking the list at No. 19.

They opened 2009 with consecutive victories, running the nation's longest active winning streak to 16, before falling 31-24 at Oregon on Sept. 19 to drop out of the rankings.  The Utes recovered by winning six in a row to climb to No. 16, but concluded the regular season by losing two of three, including defeats to ranked Mountain West foes TCU and BYU. Those losses dropped Utah out of BCS contention as it finished third in the conference to land in the Poinsettia Bowl for the second time in three years.

Utah won its previous trip in 2007, beating Navy 35-32. The Utes have won all eight bowl games they've played since losing to Wisconsin in the 1996 Copper Bowl.  "We look at it as another challenge," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We've had a bunch of those BCS opponents over the last seven or eight years, and our guys are prepared and looking for a chance to play these higher-profile teams. And Cal-Berkeley is certainly one of those teams."  California (9-3) saw its chances of reaching its first BCS bowl dented by an early season loss to the Ducks. The Golden Bears won their first three games to move to No. 6 in the poll before a stunning 42-3 loss at Oregon on Sept. 26.  They followed that a week later with a 30-3 loss to then-No. 7 Southern California, damaging their hopes of winning their first Pac-10 title in 51 years.

Cal rebounded by winning five of six, including victories over ranked Pac-10 opponents Arizona and Stanford, to move back into the poll at No. 19. However, the Bears fell out again after concluding the regular season with a 42-10 loss at sub-.500 Washington on Dec. 5.

"That's big. You hate to end the season on a note like the game we played, so it gives us the opportunity to go out and compete and put our best foot forward," coach Jeff Tedford said. "Of course, you want to play in the biggest bowl you can, but the frustration comes in just not playing our best and not finishing the season like we would like to have finished it in conference play."  Under Tedford, Cal has reached a bowl game for a school-record seven consecutive seasons and has won the last four, including a 24-17 victory over Miami in last year's Emerald Bowl. Overall, Cal is 10-8-1 in the postseason, while Utah is 11-3. The Golden Bears have won four of six all-time meetings, but Utah won the last one 31-24 on Sept. 11, 2003.  Cal is hoping to welcome back Jahvid Best, who hasn't played since suffering a concussion in a 31-14 loss to Oregon State on Nov. 7.  In nine games prior to the injury, Best was considered a possible Heisman Trophy candidate, gaining 867 yards on 141 carries with 12 TDs, while adding four scores on receptions. Best would be facing a Utah defense that allows 141.3 rushing yards per game.

Quarterback Kevin Riley may have a tough time with the Utes defense, which led the Mountain West with 15 interceptions while holding opponents to an average of 172.8 passing yards.  Riley has been intercepted four times in the last four games, completing just 52.9 percent of his passes, though he did rank third in the Pac-10 with 2,636 passing yards.  The Utes are expected to have freshman Jordan Wynn under center as he gets a fifth consecutive start after winning the job from junior Terrance Cain.

Wynn has thrown for 991 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions in five games, while relying on running back Eddie Wide for support.  The junior leads the conference with 1,032 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He'll get to face a Cal defense that allows an average of 118.0 yards on the ground after giving up a total of 365 over the last two games.

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