By Ryan of The Sportmeisters
The NCAA post-season kicks off December 19th, with 33 games being played in a three week span. Seniors will get their last hurrah, and teams will attempt to end their season on the winning side, in the hopes of improving recruiting that follows afterwards. The Sportmeisters will preview each of the 33 games that lie ahead, and provide our predictions as well. Let’s get to it!
Poinsettia Bowl, December 23rd, 8:00 PM, San Diego, California
No. 23 Utah (9-3) vs. California (8-4)
About Utah: The Utes came into 2009 with high hopes after knocking off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last season. Those hopes began to fade after a loss to Oregon in the third week. Six straight wins followed, but Utah ended their season with losses to BYU and TCU, removing any shot of a Mountain West Conference title, and relegating them to a lower bowl than they expected. However, they are still playing with the hopes of a ten win season. They boast a top 20 defense (314.7 yards per game), which will be effective against Cal’s offensive weapons. Their pass defense is one of the best, holding opponents to a mere 172.83 yards per game in the air. Senior DB Robert Johnson is a shutdown corner, with 66 tackles, five interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns on the season. Junior RB Eddie Wide leads the MWC with 1033 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He will be expected to keep the pressure off of Freshman QB Jordan Wynn, who won the starting job near the end of the season. Wynn’s top target is Senior WR David Reed (75 catches for 1085 yards and five touchdowns). Look for Utah to rely heavily on Wide and the defense to methodically take out Cal, without putting Wynn in too many tough spots.
About California: Cal started off hot at 3-0, before managing only six points in their next two games, both losses. They bounced back, winning five of six, before ending their season on a low note against Washington. Nevertheless, they are bowl eligible, and are hoping for a completely healthy squad coming in. That starts with the potential return of Junior RB Jahvid Best, a potential Heisman candidate who was injured in a November loss to Oregon State. He has 867 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games this season. His backup, Sophomore RB Shane Vereen, has filled in admirably, rushing for 830 yards and ten touchdowns. Junior LB Mike Mohamed (104 tackles, one sack, three interceptions, one forced fumble) leads a defense that is 27th in the nation in run defense (117.08 yards per game). That is important as they aim to keep the ball out of Wide’s hands, and force Wynn to throw the ball more often.
The Matchup: Utah is 11-3 in their bowl history, currently owning the nation’s longest bowl winning streak, at eight.
Cal is 10-8-1, riding a four game bowl winning streak and a seven game appearance streak. Cal is also 4-2 against Utah, but the Utes won the last matchup in 2003 31-24.
With Cal’s ability to stop the run, Utah will have to rely heavily on their defense to force turnovers, gaining favorable field position for the young Wynn. However, behind Senior DE Tyson Alualu and Junior DE Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks combined in 2009), Wynn will need to keep from getting flustered and turning the ball back over.
Utah’s rushing defense is only 57th in the nation (141.33 yards a game), allowing ample opportunity for Best and Vereen to shine. Should Utah try to cheat up and stack the box, that should open Junior QB Kevin Riley to some wide open receivers. Riley has been a solid QB, but has thrown five of his six interceptions in November and December, and his accuracy can be suspect at times.
The Prediction: Utah develops an amazing rush defense, and allows Wynn to get some great field position. Utah 17-10.