Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (10) tackles Cal running back Shane Vereen during Wednesday night's Poinsettia Bowl battle.

SAN DIEGO — Near the end of the first quarter of Wednesday night's Poinsettia Bowl, Cal sophomore running back Shane Vereen had six carries for 72 yards, including a touchdown scamper of 36 yards when he waltzed into the end zone with nary a Utah defender in sight.

Vereen came into the Poinsettia Bowl averaging 144 yards per contest over his three-game stint as Cal's starting running back — he entered the lineup after Jahvid Best suffered a severe concussion Nov. 7 against Oregon State.

With Vereen off to such a fast start on Wednesday night, the Golden Bears' offense had the look of a unit that was primed to run roughshod over the Utes all night long.

It looked as if Utah would have to make serious adjustments to its defensive scheme if it had any hope of holding Vereen below 200 yards rushing.

Turns out, all the Utes really needed to do was just relax and play their game.

"The first one that got out of the gate, the (36-yard) touchdown, we had a gap that we didn't fill," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We had a missed assignment. That long run was a blown assignment. From that point forward, we played sound football and tackled well.

"The essence of defense is good tackling, and we've been a good tackling defense for many years. We put a premium on that. Our defense began tackling very well, and I thought the defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage."

Once Utah's defense found its form, a sound scheme took hold, and the Utes kept Vereen in check. After surpassing 70 yards on his first half-dozen carries, he gained only 4 yards combined over the next seven times he drove with the ball.

"We were excited to play our last game together, and we weren't really focused on some of the key things, the detailed things about our defense," Utah safety Robert Johnson said. "Coach (Kalani) Sitake didn't change anything. He kept the plays coming, and he was just telling us to focus more on the details on our normal defense that we normally run. We calmed down and did what we were supposed to on defense."

Although Vereen finished the night with 20 carries for 122 yards and a pair of scores, only 45 of his rushing yards came after the first quarter. Cal coach Jeff Tedford attributed his running back's diminished production to Utah's run blitzes.

"You have to give Utah a lot of credit," Tedford said. "They did a nice job of controlling the line of scrimmage. They did a nice job with their blitz package, their run-blitz schemes.

"With the run blitzes, it's kind of hit or miss. With the (36-yard touchdown run), we hit a crease and bounced it back. The next time, we didn't hit the crease."

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