SAN DIEGO — Nine has the Utah Utes feeling fine. They extended the nation's longest active bowl streak to nine wins with a 37-27 come-from-behind victory over California in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium.
"I couldn't be more proud of a football team as I was this evening — particularly the senior class," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "It was important to us, as we talked as a football team, of sending these guys out the right way."
The seniors, though, were led by a true freshman offensively. Quarterback Jordan Wynn, who is from nearby Oceanside High School, earned Offensive MVP honors in his homecoming of sorts.
Wynn overcame an early pick-six to complete 26-of-36 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.
"I just had to get back in my rhythm and just not let it get to me. There was a lot of game left and I just had to bounce back," Wynn said while noting he couldn't have asked for anything better than how things turned out. "As a quarterback you've got to have a short memory. The offense as a whole kind of picked me up."
The defense did it's part as well.
"You have to give Utah credit. They're a good defensive team," said California coach Jeff Tedford. "They did a great job controlling the line. They did a lot of nice things."
Senior linebacker Stevenson Sylvester recorded eight tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown to receive Defensive MVP honors.
"Anybody on this defense could have won this trophy here tonight," he said. "Because we all played great. I love everything about this team."
Everything, perhaps, with the exception of Wednesday's sluggish start.
For the first time since 1999 in Las Vegas, Utah failed to put the first points on the board in a bowl game.
Cal broke the streak, which extended through seven games, when running back Shane Vereen ran 36 yards for a touchdown with 6:06 remaining in the first quarter.
It took just 11 more seconds for things to get worse for the Utes.
On the next play from scrimmage, outside linebacker Eddie Young intercepted a pass by Wynn and returned it 31 yards to the end zone.
The outburst, including extra-point kicks from Vince D'Amato, gave the Golden Bears an early 14-0 advantage.
Utah's comeback began on the ensuing possession after Shaky Smithson returned the kickoff 61 yards to the Cal 30.
The Utes capitalized on the field position with an eight-play scoring drive, capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass from Wynn to tight end Kendrick Moeai.
Trailing 14-7, Utah carried it's newfound momentum into the second quarter.
And turned things around — decisively.
While the defense prevented Cal from getting a single first down, Utah's offense scored 17 points over the 14:17 of the second quarter.
The run gave the Utes a 24-14 halftime lead.
A 28-yard field goal by Joe Phillips got things started. The go-ahead score was a 15-yard touchdown throw from Wynn to Moeai with 4:58 to play in the quarter.
Before the half was complete, Utah added a 21-yard scoring strike from Wynn to Jereme Brooks.
The last-minute play upped the Utes' total offense in the quarter to 180 yards.
Missed opportunities, however, followed in the third quarter and allowed the Golden Bears to climb back into contention.
Utah had a touchdown play nullified by a penalty. The Utes were flagged for having too many men in the backfield when Smithson teamed with David Reed on a 42-yard throw. Prior to the completion, Smithson took the snap and handed off to Eddie Wide. Wide then pitched the ball back to Smithson.
The Utes eventually punted the ball away. Their next drive was also promising. However, a run by Wide came up short on fourth-and-1 from the Cal 25.
Utah was more fortunate on it's next possession. The defense set up a 29-yard field goal by Phillips that made it 27-14. Lamar Chapman forced Bears quarterback Kevin Riley to fumble the ball and Mike Wright recovered it for the Utes.
Cal responded, though, with a six-play touchdown drive. A 1-yard run by Vereen pulled the Bears to within one score of the Utes.
Leading 27-21, Utah regained some breathing room early in the fourth quarter when Phillips connected on a 25-yard field goal. The nine-point lead held firm until the defense added to it with 5:27 left to play. That's when Stevenson returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown.
Safety Robert Johnson tipped the pass and then notched his own pick on Cal's next play from scrimmage.
The Bears did, however, manage a late response. But Riley's 24-yard TD pass to Jeremy Ross failed to ignite any sort of late rally.
"It was really a snowball effect," Vereen said. "We were on track in the beginning and then we just lost our execution."
After accepting Utah's ninth consecutive bowl championship trophy, senior captain Zane Beadles explained how the Utes maintained their composure despite a rocky opening.
"That's how this team operates. We take on the persona of our coach and never panic, never get too high, never get too low and come out on top."
Whittingham praised his team for finding a way to hang in there, keep fighting and for keeping their heads up.
"We got some momentum there. The offense started to click. The defense stiffened up," he said. "The results speak for themselves — a very, very good team win."
e-mail: [email protected]