SAN DIEGO-On Wednesday night, the Cal football team added a new chapter to what has become a lengthy tome. The Bears yet again could not defend a non-traditional offense and fell victim to several costly gaffes on special teams, falling to No. 23 Utah 37-27 in the San Diego County Credit Union Pointsettia Bowl.
"You have to give Utah a lot of credit," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "They're a very good defensive football team. They did a nice job of controlling the line of scrimmage, for the most part, and they did a nice job with their blitz package and their run blitz schemes."
The Bears sprinted out to an early 14-0 lead thanks to the legs of sophomore Shane Vereen and the eyes of senior linebacker Eddie Young. While Vereen scampered for a 36-yard score and seemed to run at will on the Utah defense, the Utes offense was knocked back on its heels.
In the first quarter, the ferocious Cal defense tallied four tackles for loss, two sacks and Young's 31-yard interception return for a touchdown - the first score of his career.
"I really just kept thinking that it was early in the game," said Utah's freshman signal caller Jordan Wynn. "There was so much time left, especially with how explosive our offense can be."
But it wasn't the Utes' offense that drew first blood. It was their special teams. On the ensuing kickoff, the Bears could not manage to cover Shaky Smithson, who reeled off a stunning 61-yard return.
"It was a nice return by Shakey, blocked up very nice by the return team," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. "The wedge executed their blocks just right, the front line got hats on people, and Shakey just hit the crease and set us up for the first score."
After Smithson's return, the Utes went on to score 20 more unanswered points on the strength of a passing attack led by the 19-year-old Wynn, who completed 26-of-36 passes to seven different receivers for 338 yards and three touchdowns on the game.
Wynn exploited soft coverage in the middle of Cal's secondary for two of those scoring strikes, completing a 15-yard pass to Kendrick Moeai for Utah's second TD with less than five minutes left in the second quarter and hooking up with junior wide out Jereme Brooks less than four minutes later.
The Utes utilized the type of bubble-screens and short passes that are a hallmark of the spread offense, a scheme against which the Bears have historically struggled. Tedford acknowledged that as soon as the Utes picked up their offensive tempo in the second quarter, Cal was unprepared.
"They hit some big plays in the passing game, we missed some tackles in the open field," Tedford said. "We had guys driving to the ball and then not secure the tackle. They made some big plays after the catch, and again, they protected the passer pretty well and their quarterback played very well."
Brooks was the Bears' most frequent headache, catching a game-high seven passes for 76 yards. Utah senior David Reed set single-season school records for receptions (81) and receiving yards (1,188) with his six-catch, 103-yard evening.
The Bears had Wynn's number in the first quarter, rattling him with relentless pursuit and Young's pick six. But by the second quarter, Wynn was able to adjust and switch from looking downfield to hitting short passes in the flat and out towards the sidelines.
"Not a whole lot changed. I kind of just relaxed," Wynn said. "They play a difficult defense. They drop a lot of guys, and I just had to relax and try not to force it in there. It just showed how great our wide outs are. A lot of those passes were little bubble screens and little five-yard throws that they were turning into big plays."
In the early goings, Cal relied mostly on Vereen for offense, as he rushed 12 times for 79 yards in the first half, highlighted by a 36-yard first-quarter score to put the Bears up 7-0. But from the second quarter on, Vereen was largely a non-factor due to Cal's inability to establish the pass. Vereen finished the day with 122 yards on 20 carries, 38 yards shy of becoming the Bears' eighth straight 1,000-yard rusher.
He was mostly contained by the game's defensive MVP Stevenson Sylvester, who at times seemed like he was in the Cal huddle, tallying a game-high eight tackles, a 27-yard interception return and a pass break-up.
"That first run there out of the gate, we had a gap that we didn't fill," Whittingham said. "We had a missed assignment, and from that point forward, we played strong football and tackled well. That's really the essence of defense: good tackling. And we've been a good tackling defense for many years."
While the Utes' tackling got better as the game went on, Cal's declined.
"We missed tackles and stuff and should have gotten them down and we could have ended their drives," said Young. "But instead, they got big plays on us and extended their drives. After we pretty much kind of stopped the run, they started going to screens, and we weren't rallying to the ball fast enough to get them down."
Aside from tackling problems, the biggest blemish on the Bears' season finale was the performance of special teams. Tedford was visibly bothered by the question about what would be done about the special teams deficiencies, which included the return by Smithson, a blocked punt in the second quarter, a short punt out of bounds in the third, the use of cornerback Chris Conte as a kickoff returner and a bizarre call following the Bears' final score.
"Well, as with everything, you evaluate everything after the season," Tedford said. "You do a week to week, but then you sit down and you evaluate every part of the program to try and improve each year. Special teams, offense, defense, everything. We'll evaluate and try and make corrections."
Following a 24-yard touchdown pass from Bears quarterback Kevin Riley to wide out Jeremy Ross with 1:46 remaining and Cal down by 10, the point-after team took the field despite Riley repeatedly holding up two fingers towards the sideline. Tedford took a look at the scoreboard, then called a timeout to change the play. As strange as that play was, the explanation was even more inscrutable.
"I looked down at the chart and it said (scenario) one to win and (scenario) two to tie," Tedford said. "When I first looked at it, I saw the one there and I should have just looked at the scoreboard, but I looked at my chart. When I looked at it a little closer, I saw where it was the tie part ( … ) there are two columns, there's one to win and one to tie, and I looked at the one to win and then saw the one to tie."
When the Bears did line up to go for two, Riley's pass fell incomplete, all but sealing Cal's fate. While Riley went 20-of-36 for 214 yards and led several strong drives, he also threw two picks and was largely inconsistent thanks to pressure from the Utah defense, which sacked him four times.
"There were a few reads I missed when they brought the safety pressure," Riley said. "They just did a good job at taking us out of what we do."