Kragthorpe: Utes work bowl magic yet again
The college football team that nobody wants to meet this time of year was up to its usual stuff Wednesday night.
The Utah Utes, those masters of bowl preparation and presentation, staged another postseason exhibition at Qualcomm Stadium. This barely qualifies as news, I know.
"Our guys have done this for a lot of years now," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham.
In a 37-27 win over California in the Poinsettia Bowl, the Utes did everything they've done for nine bowl victories in a row: They outplayed, outworked and outcoached a theoretically superior opponent.
So you'd better believe coaches around the country are asking Whittingham for advice about this subject.
"We don't think we have the corner on the market," Whittingham said, but he appreciates how his players approach bowls, with thorough practice and conditioning and an attitude that these games mean something.
The proof is in the trophies and the jewelry.
"Coming to Utah, you win bowl rings," said senior safety Robert Johnson. "That's one of the things that helped me make my decision."
The Utes managed to make this episode interesting by falling behind 14-0. At that moment, after Cal's Shane Vereen ripped off a 36-yard touchdown run and Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn fired an interception that was returned for a score on the very next play, the Utes and their streak appeared vulnerable.
Turns out, they were just mixing in a little drama for effect.
The Utes responded with 24 points to close the first half. Wynn settled down immediately and the Ute defense steadied itself impressively.
That was Cal's welcome to a club that includes USC, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Alabama. Those power-conference teams all figured they could line up and pound the Utes with the running game and take advantage of man-to-man coverage of their receivers, only to discover otherwise.
Actually, Cal's Andy Ludwig knew what he was in for, facing this defense again after four years of scrimmages as Utah's offensive coordinator. The Bears never found any rhythm. "A lot of that has to do with what they're doing," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford, and the Utes have done it in a lot of bowl games.
Here's the not-so-secret explanation: The Utes have good athletes, they're highly motivated and they always bring their best stuff to these little affairs.
The latest update: nine wins against nine different opponents, in seven bowls, in six states, with six starting quarterbacks.
The San Diego Chargers made this discovery three years ago. They drafted Utah star Eric Weddle in the second round, and they haven't lost a regular-season game in December ever since. Meanwhile, the Utes won the Poinsettia Bowl in the Chargers' home for the second time in three years, led by a quarterback who formerly starred in high school playoff games in this stadium.
Wynn responded wonderfully to his disastrous pick-six with three touchdown passes, two to tight end Kendrick Moeai -- who had only two catches before Wednesday. That's a perfect illustration of how the Ute coaches dominated this matchup. Dave Schramm, Ludwig's successor, delivered other innovations including a shovel pass and quick-snap plays that befuddled the Bears.
And when the Utes needed an exclamation point, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester provided it. His 27-yard interception return clinched the victory, a year after he recorded three sacks against Alabama.
"Stevenson seems to play his best when the lights are the brightest," Whittingham said.
The Poinsettia Bowl was a slightly less glamorous setting than the Sugar Bowl, but the Utes still gave it their best effort. As usual, it was more than sufficient.