2009 Poinsettia Bowl Preview
California (8-4, 5-4; Pac Ten) vs. Utah (9-3, 6-2; Mountain West)
December 23rd, 2009 @ 8:00 PM (EST) – ESPN – San Diego, California
2009 brings the 5th renewal of the Poinsettia Bowl. This year’s game is highlighted by the first appearance from a Pac Ten team in the bowl’s short history as Cal matches up with Utah. Last year’s Poinsettia Bowl was perhaps the highest-profile non-BCS bowl: TCU defeated previously unbeaten Boise State 17-16 in a game that is being played again this year in the BCS! This will surely be one of the most exciting pre-Christmas games of bowl season.
California had a very bipolar season. The Golden Bears were considered among the favorites to unseat USC in the Pac Ten chase before suffering back to back blowouts in late September. Since then, they’ve alternately surprised (defeating Stanford and Arizona) and disappointed (losing in blowout fashion to Washington as the year closed). This team has been very difficult to get a pulse on all year because you just never know which team is going to show up. The Golden Bears’ coach is Jeff Tedford, who has widely been credited for turning Cal back into a competitive football program. In his eight years, he has led the Bears to a 67-34 record and a winning season every year. His 5-1 bowl record is an excellent track record of postseason preparation, a good sign for the Bears in this game.
Cal’s offense was solid but unspectacular, finishing 47th nationally with 29.3 points per game, but they fell short of expectations considering the sheer talent that they possess at tailback. Both Shane Vereen and Jahvid Best rushed for over 800 yards and ten touchdowns even though Best had some serious injury issues. In spite of their two star tailbacks, Cal only finished 37th in rushing and their 50th ranked passing game suffered as well. Despite decent numbers, their offensive production was undermined by the performances in their four losses: None of those games saw Cal score more than 14 points, their four lowest scores of the year! However, the Golden Bears have been very good at protecting the football and their 14 turnovers are among the lowest in the country.
The Golden Bears were also no better than average defensively, finishing 54th in scoring defense at 24.5 points per game. However, much like their offense, they were at their worst in losing efforts, as their four highest totals allowed came in their four losses. This was in large part due to a downright miserable pass defense, which finished 108th in the country! Their rush defense was much better (27th nationally) but the fact that only 12 teams were worse in all of college football in the air is an ominous sign.
Utah continued their stellar run of success under Kyle Wittingham as they followed up their BCS-busting 2008 season with a solid 2009 campaign. Wittingham’s 5th Utes squad produced the school’s 5th winning record during his tenure and this will be the school’s 2nd appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl. Wittingham has done a remarkable job since taking over for Urban Meyer as he has a 46-17 record that includes a perfect 4-0 mark in the postseason, including a win in this very game two years ago. Despite a strong 9-3 mark, the Utes were somewhat underwhelming this year as they lost their only games against ranked opposition and only beat two bowl-bound teams. Their year ended in disappointment as they lost in overtime to archrival BYU in the Holy War rivalry game.
Utah’s offense was exactly as productive as California on the scoreboard, tying for 47th in the country with a 29.3 scoring average. The Utes were very balanced, finishing 45th in rushing and 55th in passing! Their best offensive weapon was tailback Eddie Wide, who rang up 1,032 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Utah isn’t extremely prolific but they protect the football well and keep their solid defense in good field position.
And their defense was really the strength of the team in 2009, holding opponents to an average of 19.7 points per game, good for 19 th best in America! Their aerial defending was outstanding, finishing with the 13th best mark in the county while snagging 15 interceptions. On the downside, their rush defense was only average at 56th nationally and was a liability in their three losses. Utah’s defense has dictated their results this year as the only three times that they’ve allowed opponents to score more than 17 points have come in their three losses. Clearly, the play of this unit will dictate the outcome of the Poinsettia Bowl.
This game presents a very interesting matchup. Both coaches have a great history of bringing their teams into the postseason with a high level of preparation (hence their 9-1 combined bowl record) and both teams have very similar offensive output. Furthermore, with the game taking place so early in the bowl season, the effects of the multi-week layoff shouldn’t be too severe. However, there are a few statistics worth noting: California has a strong rushing attack that matches up well against Utah’s average run defense. The Golden Bears have also played a much tougher schedule coming into this clash.
On the other hand, Utah brings a stronger overall defense to the table and will face one of the country’s worst pass defenses. Furthermore, California has had a disturbing habit of no-showing games this year and all four of their losses have come in blowout fashion. In short, I don’t think that the Golden Bears are mentally tough enough to deal with adversity and that will be the decisive factor in this game. Expect both teams to be prepared to play but Utah’s superior defensive showing and Cal’s questionable heart will be the keys as the Utes will pull away late for their 5th consecutive bowl victory under Wittingham and 9th consecutive bowl victory overall.
Poinsettia Bowl Pick: Utah 26, California 17
by Matt Baxendell
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