Poinsettia Bowl: Unsinkable Utah wins seventh straight bowl game as Midshipmen's rally comes up short
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
SAN DIEGO Utah's seventh consecutive bowl victory didn't come without a fight.
Thursday's 35-32 victory over Navy in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl went down to the wire.
"We'll take this win and celebrate it," said quarterback Brian Johnson, the game's offensive MVP. "Any time you play the Naval Academy you know you're going to get their best shot. You know they won't give up. They'll fight to the very end. That's what they're trained to do."
A wild finish kept the 39,129 fans at Qualcomm Stadium in their seats until the final horn sounded.
An interception by defensive MVP Joe Dale on the Utah 31-yard line sealed the deal with just 26 seconds left in the game. It came two plays after Navy recovered an onside kick after Zerbin Singleton caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada.
Prior to that, Utah scored on a 1-yard run by Darrell Mack to make it 35-25. The Utes cashed in on good field position after the defense stopped Navy on four plays after the Midshipmen stopped Mack on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
Adding to the drama was what officials acknowledged was a blown call in a postgame statement. On third down, Jereme Brooks lost the ball while reaching for the end zone on a touchdown attempt. A touchback wasn't called, however, allowing the Utes to keep the ball costing Navy possession, time and yardage.
The Utes, meanwhile, snapped a nine-game losing streak (dating back to a 2003 loss to New Mexico) when trailing at halftime.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham didn't dwell on it. He opted to focus his postgame remarks on other things namely his team's ninth win in a season plagued with injuries.
Upon receiving the championship trophy, Whittingham said he'd never been around a group of players who fought through adversity like this.
The Utes faced tough times Thursday as well.
"Things weren't working for us in the first half," said Johnson, who praised former teammate Eric Weddle of the San Diego Chargers for some halftime inspiration. "(He) came in and was like 'Don't press it, you've got it.' So we wanted to come out and keep playing and it turned out good for us."
Navy added to a 10-7 halftime lead early in the third quarter when fullback Eric Kettani rambled 43 yards for a touchdown. The 10-point deficit was Utah's biggest since a 27-0 setback at UNLV on Sept. 22.
Unlike that night, this one wasn't insurmountable.
Led by Johnson, who overcame a 2-for-5 start by completing 11 consecutive passes, the Utes rallied and managed to take the lead before the fourth quarter began.
After handing the ball off to Brooks on a 23-yard misdirection play resulting in a touchdown, Johnson later teamed with Derrek Richards on a 40-yard scoring strike.
The outburst put the Utes ahead 21-17 with 1:12 remaining in the quarter.
For good measure, Johnson added a 19-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
Leading 28-17, Utah established a comfort zone for a little while, anyhow.
Navy battled back into contention less than four minutes later. A 10-yard touchdown catch by Shun White and a successful two-point conversion by Kaheaku-Enhada made it 28-25 and set up the dramatic conclusion.
A scoreless first quarter featured three turnovers. The miscues began when Navy punter Greg Veteto was unable to handle a bad snap. Justin Taplin-Ross recovered the fumble for Utah near midfield.
Three plays later, the Midshipmen regained possession when linebacker Ross Pospisil picked off a Johnson pass intended for Bradon Godfrey and returned it 20 yards to the Utah 47.
Navy, however, failed to capitalized on the opportunity despite driving into scoring position. A fumble by running back Reggie Campbell was pounced on by Utah middle linebacker Joe Jiannoni on the 2-yard line with 7:40 remaining in the first quarter.
Campbell later made amends with a 44-yard run to set up another chance to put points on the board. A 50-yard field goal attempt by Joey Bullen was wide left, though leaving the game in a scoreless tie.
It stayed that way until the final 8:42 of the first half.
Utah broke through first. The Utes converted on a pair of third-down situations while marching 70 yards on eight plays. A 2-yard touchdown run by Mack capped things off.
Trailing 7-0, Navy responded with a pair of scores before the half was complete.
The Midshipmen responded to Utah's touchdown with one of their own on the ensuing possession. Kaheaku-Enhada's 2-yard run into the end zone finished off an eight-play series that covered 70 yards.After forcing the Utes to punt, Navy once again embarked on a sustained drive. The Midshipmen ran 10 plays before taking the lead on a 39-yard field goal by Bullen with 28 seconds left in the second quarter.
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