Utah football: Utes achieve a No. 9 dream
San Diego » Playing in his first bowl game less than 40 miles from his hometown, Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn looked every bit like a freshman feeling the pressure of leading the No. 23 Utah Utes in the Poinsettia Bowl Wednesday.
He was slow to get the plays going, looked uncertain in his decision making and threw a bad pass that was returned by Cal to give the Pac-10 team a two-touchdown lead just moments into the game.
But that mistake might have been the best thing that happened to Wynn as he recovered from a nightmarish start to lead the Utes (10-3) to a 37-27 victory over the Bears (8-5) in front of 32,665 spectators at Qualcomm Stadium.
The win gives the Utes nine straight bowl wins, which continues the U.S.'s longest active streak and ties them with USC (1923-45) for the second-most consecutive bowl wins in history. FSU holds the record with 11 consecutive wins, 1985-1996.
"It really is a tribute to our players and the work ethic that goes back a lot of years," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "It has taken a lot of years to put that together and each of these groups that come here approach the bowl situation the same way. They understand it's a reward but they understand it's another chance to win a football game and I believe they just outwork their opponents in bowl situations."
Ending the Poinsettia Bowl with such a win over the Bears, who entered as a 3-point favorite, put an exclamation mark on what was considered a rebuilding year for the Utes.
They didn't reach their goal of defending the MWC title, but they will finish the season ranked and with their fifth 10-win season ever.
"This means everything to us, for our seniors and the program," linebacker Kepa Gaison said. "We're used to not getting much credit but we show up and play and that is what we did today."
Cal, perhaps because of its Pac-10 pedigree and veteran quarterback in Kevin Riley, was picked to win by most prognosticators.
However, it was the Utes who, as the third-place team from the MWC, showed once more why they shouldn't be underestimated in big games. They righted themselves after a bad start and mastered the Bears, who finished the regular season tied for fifth in the Pac-10 with USC.
"It was important to us as a football team to send these guys out the right way," Whittingham said. "It was an auspicious beginning, getting down 14-0, but we found a way to hang in there and keep fighting and get our heads up."
The turnaround can be credited in large part to Wynn's play. Wynn was named the Offensive MVP, finishing 26-of-36 for 338 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
The interception, which was returned by Cal's Eddie Young 31 yards to give the Bears a 14-0 lead, seemed to light a fire under Wynn.
He connected on his next six passes and finished the half 15-of-21 for 225 yards for three touchdowns to help the Utes lead 24-14 at the half.
"I took it upon myself not to force the ball anymore," he said. "I had to settle down and play within myself. We got the momentum and we rolled with it."
Once Utah got the lead, the Utes' defense protected it.
Cal quarterback Kevin Riley was 20-of-36 for 214 yards and a touchdown, but was picked off twice in the fourth quarter. Running back Shane Vereen finished with 20 carries for 122 yards and two touchdowns. However, he had just 45 yards in the final three quarters combined.
"We got down 14-0, but we've faced adversity before ..." Defensive MVP Stevenson Sylvester said. This win shows how good the program is."
In short » The Utes win their ninth consecutive bowl game with the win over Cal. Utah is now tied with USC for the second-most bowl games won in a row.
Key stat » The Utes go 5-of-5 in the red zone, finishing with two touchdowns and three field goals.
Key moment » Stevenson Sylvester, the Defensive MVP, returns an interception 27 yards to give the Utes a 37-21 lead with 5:27 remaining.