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December 22, 2009
MORE: Bowl schedule/results
Utah puts its eight-game bowl winning streak - the nation's longest - on the line in against California in Wednesday night's Poinsettia Bowl.
The Utes are 11-3 in their postseason history, and the last loss came to Wisconsin in the 1996 Copper Bowl. This is Utah's second Poinsettia appearance in three seasons; the Utes beat Navy 35-32 in the 2007 edition.
Cal is playing in a bowl for the eighth consecutive season and has a four-game bowl winning streak of its own. The Golden Bears' last bowl loss came to Texas Tech in the 2004 Holiday Bowl, which also is played at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.
POINSETTIA BOWL: WHO GETS THE EDGE?
California run offense vs. Utah run defense: Cal will be without starting TB Jahvid Best, who is still recovering from a concussion, but backup Shane Vereen is more than capable of producing a 100-yard game. Vereen received more than 15 carries in four games this season - and averaged 149.5 yards in those games, with five touchdowns. Cal has a physical offensive line that will look to wear down a smallish Utah defensive front. Utah needs LBs Stevenson Sylvester and Mike Wright to be active and productive.
California pass offense vs. Utah pass defense: Cal QB Kevin Riley threw 17 TD passes and just six interceptions, but in the Golden Bears' four losses, Riley tossed just two touchdown passes. In short, when Cal runs effectively, Riley is a competent passer. But when Cal is forced to throw, Riley struggles mightily and can't win a game by himself. Marvin Jones and Verran Tucker are Cal's leading two receivers -and they have combined for 64 catches. Vereen is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Cal has allowed 27 sacks, and Utah has made 26 sacks. FS Robert Johnson has been the star in the secondary, with five interceptions, four pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. Utah allowed five foes to throw for at least 200 yards, but none threw for more than 252 - and that was in a 31-point win over New Mexico.
Utah run offense vs. California run defense: Eddie Wide didn't become the starting running back until the fifth game, but he made up for lost time, rushing for 1,032 yards and 12 TDs. He had seven 100-yard games, including a stretch of six in a row. Utah has a solid line led by T Zane Beadles. Cal's run defense, for the most part, has been solid. But teams that made it a priority to run right at the Golden Bears generally had success. Cal gave up 11 rushing TDs in its final five regular-season games. LB Mike Mohamed had an excellent season and leads Cal with 105 tackles.
Utah pass offense vs. California pass defense: David Reed was one of the best receivers on the West Coast this season; he has 75 receptions for 1,085 yards and five touchdowns. He and Jereme Brooks form a productive duo. True freshman QB Jordan Wynn didn't play until the eighth game; coaches were planning on redshirting him until deciding at halftime against Wyoming to throw him into the fray. He played OK down the stretch. He has a good arm but still is learning the offense and must improve his accuracy. Cal had problems on pass defense this season. CB Syd'Quan Thompson is a star, but too often the Golden Bears gave up big yardage in the passing game.
California special teams vs. Utah special teams: P Bryan Anger is the star of Cal's special teams. He averages 42.1 yards per kick and has put 22 inside the opposition's 20. Cal's punt returners have been good, the kick returners barely adequate. The punt coverage team needs work, but the kick coverage unit has been OK. Freshman kicker Vince D'Amato is 7-for-12 on the season but just 2-for-6 from beyond 30 yards. Backup Giorgio Tavecchio has a stronger leg and is 3-for-7 from beyond 30 yards. Utah's Joe Phillips was the best kicker in the Mountain West this season, going 17-of-19 on field-goal attempts, including 5-for-6 from beyond 40 yards. P Sean Sellwood was a second-team Rivals.com freshman All-America selection after averaging 432.1 yards per boot. The return units are adequate, the coverage units a bit shaky.
California coaching staff vs. Utah coaching staff: Cal coach Jeff Tedford's team underachieved a bit this season. Riley is a junior but remains inconsistent. While Cal's rushing attack is a powerful one, when it is stymied the offense as a whole grounds to a halt. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig held the same position at Utah last season. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory's unit has done a good job on third downs, but the pass coverage was shaky for most of the season. Kyle Whittingham oversees one of the two or three best non-Big Six programs in the nation. He and his staff took a big chance taking the redshirt off Wynn so late in the season, but it should pay off big next season. Both coordinators are new this season, and Whittingham changed offensive play-callers late in the season.
X-factor: Both teams probably figured they'd end up a little higher in the bowl pecking order, but you especially have to wonder about Cal's mindset. The Golden Bears mailed it in in their regular-season finale, a 42-10 beatdown at the hands of a five-win Washington team. Will the Bears play with any passion?
California will win if: If the Golden Bears run effectively, they'll be in good shape. Vereen is no Best, but he still will be the second- or third-best running back Utah has seen this season. When the running game is effective, Riley is, too, because he is able to use play-action to his heart's content.
Utah will win if: The Utes want to make Riley beat them, so stifling Vereen is the key. The Utes are going to have to play aggressively with their safeties, which shouldn't be a problem given how pedestrian Cal's receiving corps has been this season.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.