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Cal offensive lineman Mike Tepper, shown with running back Shane Vereen, right, hopes to do a lot of celebrating in the Poinsettia Bowl. Tepper was a redshirt when Cal lost its last bowl game, the 2004 Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech. (Dean Coppola/Staff)

SAN DIEGO — Cal left tackle Mike Tepper is one of 226 players on the rosters for the Poinsettia Bowl. He's the only one of the 226 who knows what it's like to end a major-college football season with a loss.

When Cal meets No. 23 Utah today in the Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium, it will feature two programs that have this bowl thing down. The Utes have a nation-best eight-game winning streak in bowl games, while the Bears have won four in a row and five of six.

Only Tepper, a sixth-year senior, was around to experience the feeling of carrying a loss into the offseason. Tepper was a redshirt in 2004 when Cal lost to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

"That sour taste in your mouth is the worst thing in the world — worse than spinach," Tepper said. "Whatever vegetable you hate, it's ten times worse."

Tepper knows better than any Cal player the importance of ending the season positively, because he's the only one who's experienced the alternative. Punctuating the season with a bowl win sets the tone for the offseason, helps recruiting and, in this season's case, can erase the sting of a previous loss.

"Some of us talked about this being kind of like the first game of next season," Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed said. "It really gives you momentum going into spring workouts. With a loss, you're going to have that bad taste in your mouth. You're going to have to wait until August or September to get back on to the field. I think it's really important to go out on a good note."

During conditioning before a recent practice, Tepper talked to the team about the Holiday Bowl loss.

"Tepper said losing to Texas Tech was the worst feeling in the world to end your season on that note," Cal fullback Brian Holley said. "It brings you down for the rest of the offseason. I never put it in perspective like that. It adds a little more to it."

A loss tonight might sting even more for the Bears since they ended the regular season with a 42-10 thud at Washington. In a season in which many picked Cal as a Pac-10 contender, the Poinsettia Bowl might seem like a consolation prize. But the Bears say any concern of a letdown is mitigated by their performance against the Huskies.

"We put the Washington game behind us, but we didn't forget about it," Holley said. "It wasn't a great effort on our part. We don't want to end our season on that kind of note. The team is really amped up to get this victory — to go out and put it all together one last time."

Ending the season strongly also can have recruiting implications. Recruits who desire to play for a national-level program with hope for the future could be turned off if a team ends the season with a whimper and well out of the national rankings. Cal has won a few notable recruiting battles in recent weeks and could make even more of an impact with a strong finish.

"Winning football games is a big deal because perception of the recruits and what you're doing here makes a big difference," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's always important to finish strong for a lot of reasons, but recruiting definitely is one of them."

Cal's ability to finish the season successfully will depend on which team shows up. The Bears have eight wins, including two over ranked teams, but also have been blown out in each of their four losses.

"They've been up and down all season long, but we fully expect them to come out and play as well as they have all season," Utah left tackle Zane Beadles said. "That's what we are preparing for. That's really all we can do. We can't bank on them coming out and having an off day."

FOOTBALL
  • today: Poinsettia Bowl, vs. Utah, 5 p.m.,
    at San Diego.
    TV: ESPN
    Radio: 810-AM, 1050-AM
    Bowling Bears
    Bowl games played by Cal since Jeff Tedford took over as coach in 2002:
  • Insight Bowl, Dec. 26, 2003: Cal 52, Virginia Tech 49
  • Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30, 2004: Texas Tech 45, Cal 31
  • Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 22, 2005: Cal 35, BYU 28
  • Holiday Bowl, Dec. 28, 2006: Cal 45, Texas A&M 10
  • Armed Forces Bowl, Dec. 31, 2007: Cal 42, Air Force 36
  • Emerald Bowl, Dec. 27, 2008: Cal 24, Miami 17
    EMERALD BOWL
  • Saturday: USC vs. Boston College, 5 p.m. TV: ESPN