The next game on our list of “matchups better than anything that includes Fresno State” features another Mountain West versus Pacific 10 battle. This will be an interesting battle with Cal missing their key player and being hot and cold on offense otherwise.

Utah (9-3, 6-2 Pacific 10) vs. California (8-4, 5-4 Pacific 10)

December 23, 2009 8:00 PM ET

Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California

History:

Winner of the Prestigious* Longest-Name-For-A-Bowl Trophy.

The Poinsettia Bowl is entering it’s 5th year of existence after being formed in 2005 by the organizers of the Holiday Bowl. The game originally didn’t have much of a tie-in role, but eventually settled on selecting the second best non-BCS Mountain West team to face off against the fifth or sixth best Pacific 10 team. In the event that there isn’t a bowl eligible Pacific-10 team remaining, the Poinsettia bowl selects a WAC team instead.

Also interesting to note is that the Navy has an open agreement with the bowl game. The Middies automatically accepted invitations to the Poinsettia bowl for 2008, 2009 and 2010 if Navy managed to end the regular season with bowl eligibility. In 2008, Navy ended up playing in the EagleBank Bowl against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, however, in a game that they likely believed was more prestigious. Navy has made this deal with the Poinsettia bowl for obvious reasons – San Diego is home to a major naval base and Navy would draw a big fan base for the game.

The Poinsettia Bowl also made such an agreement with the Army Black Knights for the 2006 season, but Army was unable to become bowl eligible that year.

Of the 4 games played in this bowl game only the last two have been worthy of merit. In 2007, Utah defeated Navy 35-32 in the first bowl game of the season. That was the first game that current Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo took charge, as Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech before the game. Last years game saw TCU and Boise State battle do battle. This has lead the 2010 Fiesta Bowl to be billed as the 2008 Poinsettia rematch. In last years game, TCU managed to defeat Boise State 17-16 after trailing for the first 3 quarters.

Utah:

The Utes.  It means "People From Utah", not "Indian Tribe" *wink-wink*

Utah hails from the Northern part of the Salt Lake Valley, set directly against the mountains and not far from downtown Salt Lake City. They’ve had a rich Football history in the recent years, including having the illustrious** Urban Meyer as a head coach for two years (2003-2004) before he ran off to coach that horribly ugly team in Gainesville. Urban helped lead Utah to and undefeated season in 2004 and their first BCS game: the 2005 Fiesta Bowl against Pittsburgh. For those of you who remember, Utah laid the wood to Pitt by a final of 35-7. Utah completed the feat again last year managing to make it to the Sugar Bowl to face a solid Alabama team. Utah promptly crushed the Tide 31-17 (if the 2008 National Championship was a crushing, so was this!) leaving Utah a recent legacy of BCS dominance.

This season was not quite as spectacular as previous seasons, but was still pretty good. While they don’t have any truly quality wins, they did perform well against their best opponents. They lost to Oregon (31-24), TCU (55-28) and BYU (26-23). It won’t get you into the BCS, but it’s at least the kind of season you can be proud of. Utah does manage to schedule at least one BCS opponent each year, and more often than not tries to choose one that is going to give them a reasonable challenge – Michigan was a good shot for last year, if only they could have not sucked.

The primary passing threat for the Utes is quarterback Terrance Cain who threw for 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions this season with a 63.7% completion percentage. His 1624 yards on 137 completions gives him a solid yards per catch average for a team that is probably more geared towards the run. His backup, Jordan Wynn, has 991 yards 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions on 54.5% completion – pretty good stats for a Freshman. Wynn looks to take over the spot in a couple years once Cain graduates, and will likely do a great job.

Running Back Eddie Wide

The biggest scorer for Utah has to be Junior Runningback Eddie Wide. His 1032 yards and 12 touchdowns on 182 carries lead the team by a fair margin. He’s not one who’s going to break the long run very often – his longest on the year is 44 yards – but he does run hard and gives his team a good chance to win. The rest of the runningbacks on the team have combined for 11 touchdowns and 1001 yards, so don’t count out their contributions either, but Wide will be the featured back for the Utes attack.

In the receiving game 2 players in particular stand out. David Reed is a big play threat every single time he gets near the ball. He’s netted 1085 yards on just 75 receptions for the year – an average of 14.5 yards per catch. More impressively, the average of his longest receptions in each game comes out to about 40 yards and his longest is 90 for a touchdown against Air Force. Jereme Brooks is another favorite target of the quarterbacks, netting 49 receptions for 620 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s not as much of a big play threat as Reed, but if you don’t take the effort to remove him from the game he can still burn you for long yardage. Utah has also thrown to 12 other players, but only 4 have received catches with any sort of frequency. Reed and Brooks are clearly the top two targets that California must defend.

California:

The Golden Bears.

California started the season ranked at number 12 in the polls and rose to number 8 before playing Minnesota in the Gopher’s brand new stadium. During that game, Cal built themselves a nice 14 point lead only to see it evaporate by the end of the third quarter. However, 2 4th quarter runs by then Heisman prospect Jahvid Best (who scored all 5 of Cal’s touchdowns in the game) sealed the deal for the Golden Bears and allowed them to walk away unscathed. At least until the next week.

Ranked number 6 and looking for all the world like the team to beat in the Pac-10, since USC fell apart against Washington the week before, California travelled to Oregon to take on the Ducks in what was supposed to be a relatively easy victory. After the teams traded first quarter fieldgoals, however, things took an ugly turn. Oregon went on to score 39 unanswered points and breath new life into their season. The Bears stumbled and fell all the way to 24th in the polls. The next week was a chance to set things right.

California welcomed #7 USC in to town thinking that they were going to be able to lay the wood to a team that had lost to Washington, but gotten over it the previous week against Washington State. The Bears, however, forgot to play defense and allowed USC 457 total yards and 23 points before finally scoring another field goal. In 6 straight quarters of play the bears had been beaten 62-0. After the field goal, they allowed USC to score again, getting crushed 30-3. California dropped from the polls and did not recover for 3 weeks.

California returned to number 24 before playing at Arizona State. Defeating them 23-21 in Glendale allowed the Bears to climb even higher, to number 20. The next week, however, Oregon State marched into town and laid the wood to the Bears for the third time in the season 31-14. Again California fell from the polls. Two victories over the number 17 team in the nation – first Arizona, then Stanford – brought California back into the rankings before Washington trounced them 42-10 to end the season.

Clearly Cal has managed to win some games against decent competition, but in the four games they have lost, they have lost by a combined score of 145-30. When they decide to lose, it ain’t pretty. It also doesn’t help that Jahvid Best, your star player and leading rusher on the team goes out with an injury before halftime against Oregon State. This has essentially decimated the Golden Bears offense, and he is not expected to return for the bowl game.

Quarterback Kevin Riley

That leaves California’s offense with only a passing game that has often been described as “maddingly inconsistant”. Quarterback Kevin Riley has connected on only 54.6% of his passes this year for 2636 yards, 17 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He has a number of receiving options, 8 of whom he tries to connect with on a consistent basis, but none have really stood out as a spectacular receiver. The best is Marvin Jones with 38 receptions for 607 yards a 6 touchdowns. He gets limited help in the receiving corps, though the majority of Cal’s receivers have high yards per reception number, the next best in terms of scoring is 6th best in receiving. Of the other 4, they have only scored 3 touchdowns on 89 receptions.

At Runningback, California has replaced Jahvid Best with Shane Vereen. Vereen has done a decent job with 163 carries for 830 yards and 10 touchdowns (compare to Best’s 141 for 867 yards and 12 touchdowns). His yards per carry are very good at 5.1, but it’s not to the level of Jahvid Best’s 6.1 which is probably best described as borderline sick.

Who Are We Picking?

Jeff at the BBC: California

Mali: Utah

Jim: California

Eric: Utah

As I said in my previous review, the apparent lack of decent defenses in the Pac-10 (yea, yea USC) seems to suggest that Utah has a good chance to take out California in this game.  I also point to Utah’s recent success in big bowl games – including last year’s – and to the injury to Jahvid Best as factors in this one.

*Not so much.

** Only because Saint Tebow gives him an unearthly glow.