SAN DIEGO — This was not the vision Old Blues had mind when Cal kicked off one of the most highly anticipated seasons in years.
Demoralized players trudged off the field at Qualcomm Stadium on Wednesday night, trying to make sense of a 37-27 loss to No. 23 Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl, as well as an 8-5 record that fell way short of expectations.
"There's no way we should be 8-5," said quarterback Kevin Riley, who was 20-for-36 for 214 yards and was intercepted twice in the fourth quarter. "It's hard to say what we should have been, but we definitely should have been better than we were."
Although it was more competitive than Cal's previous four losses, Wednesday's game was more of a mismatch than the final score indicated. The Bears raced out to a 14-0 lead only to watch the Utes score 37 of the next 44 points to lead 37-21 with 5:21 remaining. Cal got a touchdown with 1:46 left but Utah was able to run out the clock.
Cal was ranked 12th in the country to begin the season and picked to finish second in the preseason Pac-10 media poll. But the Bears ended tied for fifth in the conference standings and likely won't garner a single vote in the final national rankings. It will mark the third consecutive year Cal has failed to finish in the Associated Press Top 25.
"This isn't how I expected it," Cal senior fullback Brian Holley said. "By far this is the worst feeling I've had since I've been here. This would be the last place I thought I'd be, as the losing opponent in the Poinsettia Bowl. I really felt that this team had what it takes to play in the Rose Bowl. It didn't work out that way."
Shane Vereen's 36-yard touchdown run and Eddie Young's 31-yard interception return for a score made it 14-0 with 5:55 left in the first quarter. But Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn began to pick Cal's defense apart, throwing for 225 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Meanwhile, the Bears offense turned in a pathetic stretch in which it managed just one first down during the final four possessions of the first half. That included a span of 10 offensive plays in which the Bears gained just 4 yards.
"You have to give Utah a lot of credit. They're a very good defensive football team," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "We had too many three-and-outs. You really can't do that. But a lot of it has to do with what they're doing."
For awhile, it looked as though the Bears might be able to get it going again to start the second half, as the defense turned back the Utes on each of their first two possessions, including a stop on fourth-and-one from the Cal 25. Utah got a 29-yard field goal from Joe Phillips to go up 27-14 after Riley was sacked and fumbled deep in Cal territory.
And after three more anemic possessions to begin the third quarter, the Bears offense suddenly came to life, putting together a six-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that culminated with Vereen's 1-yard scoring run.
That cut the deficit to 27-21, but the Utes came back with another field goal after Cal defensive back Chris Conte missed a tackle and allowed wide receiver David Reed to run 39 yards to the Cal 16. Phillips was good from 25 yards to make it 30-21.
The Bears were still in it when the offense took over at its 1 after the Utes downed a punt there with 6:42 left, but Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester intercepted Riley and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown to provide some breathing room at 37-21
Cal got a 24-yard touchdown pass from Riley to Jeremy Ross with 1:46 left and could have pulled to within a touchdown with a two-point conversion. But Riley's pass under pressure fell incomplete.
The Bears lost their first bowl game since 2004 so they now are faced with the unfamiliar challenge of regrouping for the offseason. It will be also be the second time in the past three years that Cal will spend the spring and summer attempting to figure out why it couldn't maximize its potential.
"This is a football program as much as an academic institution, and you need to start having expectations," Cal sixth-year senior Mike Tepper said. "We all believe that we can win a national championship. We just have to do it. This team has enough talent to beat Florida or Alabama. I think sometimes the sense of urgency on the players is spotty."
Notes: Vereen finished with 122 rushing yards to wind up with 952 for the season. It marks the first season in Tedford's eight years as coach that the Bears didn't produce a 1,000-yard rusher. ... Nose tackle Kendrick Payne recorded his first career sack in the first quarter. ... Cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, who has been bothered by a sprained ankle and was questionable leading up to the game, started and played the whole game. Thompson started all of his 52 career games.
Cal couldn't take advantage of its quick start. After jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the offense couldn't keep the momentum going. It failed to score on its next seven possessions, during which Utah scored 27 points. Here is the drive chart for Cal's dry spell:
Qtr (Time) Time of poss. Start Plays Yards Result
1 (1:35) 3:38 Cal 35 6 13 Punt
2 (9:31) 1:42 Cal 27 3 3 Punt
2 (4:58) 1:38 Cal 20 3 2 Punt
2 (0:43) 0:43 Cal 24 6 17 End of Half
3 (15:00) 1:44 Cal 25 3 -1 Punt
3 (9:54) 1:30 Cal 5 3 8 Punt
3 (4:26) 0:15 Cal 25 3 -11 Fumble