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POINSETTIA BOWL

Utah storms back to beat California, 37-27

Golden Bears watch a 14-0 lead evaporate as the Mountain West hands the Pac-10 another bowl loss.

December 24, 2009|By Ben Bolch
  • California quarterback Kevin Riley is sacked by UtahÂ’s L.T. Tuipulotu during the fourth quarter of the UtesÂ’ Poinsettia Bowl victory over the Golden Bears.
California quarterback Kevin Riley is sacked by UtahÂ’s L.T.… (Christopher Hanewinckel…)

Reporting from San Diego — Robert Johnson might have provided his team with the perfect recruiting slogan.

"You come to Utah," the senior free safety from Los Angeles said, "you win bowl rings."

Johnson collected his third piece of postseason jewelry Wednesday evening at Qualcomm Stadium after Utah scored 27 unanswered points to rally from an early two-touchdown deficit and overwhelm California, 37-27, in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn completed 26 of 36 passes for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns for the Utes (10-3), who stretched the nation's longest bowl winning streak to nine games. Utah tied USC for the second-longest bowl winning streak in NCAA history, behind only the 11 consecutive postseason victories recorded by Florida State in 1985-96.

"I believe our guys outwork the opponents in the bowl situation," said Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham, who improved to 5-0 in postseason games. "They understand that a bowl game is a chance to win another ballgame, and our guys have done that for a lot of years now."

It was the third bowl victory by a Mountain West Conference team this season and the second over a counterpart from the Pacific 10 Conference in two days after Brigham Young upended Oregon State on Tuesday in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Cal Coach Jeff Tedford said his team did not underestimate the Utes.

"That team right there had seven starters back on a defense that beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl," Tedford said. "That's a good football team."

Making his fourth consecutive start in place of injured tailback Jahvid Best for the Golden Bears (8-5), Shane Vereen had 122 yards rushing and two touchdowns, with 77 of the yards coming in the first quarter as the Bears built a 14-0 lead. The former Valencia High standout ran one way and then cut back for a 36-yard touchdown to give Cal an early 7-0 lead.

When Cal linebacker Eddie Young intercepted Wynn's next pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown, the Bears held a 14-0 advantage and appeared to be on the way to helping Tedford improve his 5-1 bowl record.

Then their offense went into hibernation mode. Here's how the rest of Cal's first-half drives ended: punt, punt, punt and halftime, with the Bears gaining three first downs along the way.

"They kind of took us out of our game," said quarterback Kevin Riley, who completed 20 of 36 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. "We didn't really get anything going."

Utah held Cal to 11 yards rushing over the last three quarters.

Meanwhile, Wynn, a true freshman from nearby Oceanside High, continually gained confidence, completing all three of his touchdown passes in the first half as the Utes took a 24-14 lead.

"I just kind of relaxed and didn't force it in there," Wynn said.

Wynn's favorite targets included receiver David Reed, who caught six passes for 103 yards to set a school record with 81 catches and 1,188 yards in a season.

Johnson intercepted a pass and broke up several others with bone-jarring hits. The former Fremont High and Los Angeles Southwest College product added a second Poinsettia Bowl ring -- the Utes also beat Navy here in 2007 -- to go with the one from the Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama last year.

"Me getting recruited here, I was feeling like I could probably win some rings," Johnson said.

"I've been here three years and won three rings."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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