At the departure airport, at the arrival airport and in the hours before kickoff at Qualcomm Stadium, the nature of the questions was startlingly consistent.
"Which team are we going to get tonight?" "Think we'll show up tonight?" Cal supporters, proudly wearing the blue-and-gold, wondered aloud Wednesday whether they might be rewarded for investing in this holiday-season trip to Southern California for a football game called the Poinsettia Bowl. The maddening inconsistency of this once-promising season very much on their minds, they fretted and fidgeted and fussed. And questioned.
They surely did not like the answer provided by Utah's 37-27 victory over the Golden Bears.
They had even less reason to like the way this game unfolded.
The Bears were outgained, outhustled by outmaneuvered by their Mountain West Conference opponent. Furthermore — and this is the most galling part for Old Blues — they were thoroughly outcoached.
Cal (8-5) flashed to a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and was outscored 37-13 over the final 50 minutes. The Utes (10-3) responded to their early futility by closing the holes in their run defense, effectively stifling Cal; tailback Shane Vereen had 77 yards on eight carries in the first quarter, 45 on 12 after that. And once Utah quickened the pace of its no-huddle offense, the Golden Bears defense lost its way.
"They kind of surprised us, especially in the second quarter," linebacker Mike Mohamed said.
Though Cal coach Jeff Tedford and his staff countered with adjustments that made the second half more competitive, the outcome was decided when the Utes rolled up 37 of the 44 points scored during the heart of the game. Freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn passed for 338 yards.
For the fifth time this season, Tedford and the Bears were double-digit victims, fairly dominated. The cumulative score of their five losses — 42-3 at Oregon, 30-3 to USC, 31-14 to Oregon State, 42-10 at Washington and the Utah final — is 182-57.
The cumulative effect is a solid coach searching for answers and coming up empty, with the exception of earnestly modulated platitudes.
Asked to assess a year that opened with Cal ranked No. 12 in the preseason, rose as high as sixth and finished completely out of the Top 25, Tedford mostly credited the competition. He singled out Oregon's Jeremiah Masoli and Washington's Jake Locker as "hot quarterbacks" who torched the Bears.
Rather than blame himself or his players in public, he credited the opposition. It's a noble gesture, one to expect from Tedford.
Privately, though, he's agitated. Has to be. Despite taking the Bears to bowl games in seven consecutive seasons, he has to believe he can be a better coach, and that his players can be more consistent.
My guess is he's profoundly disappointed. The same can be said of many of those who follow his program. The losing is something they can handle. It was a way of life when Cal was going to five bowl games in the 43 years preceding Tedford's arrival in 2002.
The inconsistency and being dominated, though, that's hard to accept when there are expectations. Even though quarterback Kevin Riley has not progressed as anticipated, Cal played well enough in spurts to provide displays of its talent.
Which is why the lopsided defeats get scrutinized ever more closely, leading to questions of preparation and inspiration. From there, it's a small step to wondering which Cal team is going to show up for a given game.
"It was almost like two seasons," Mohamed said. "There were really good games where we showed up and played Cal football. And there were other games where we got blown out." This is where Tedford and his program are, even if the coach is the best thing to happen to the program.
So there they were, at least 10,000 strong, sitting in a half-empty football stadium two nights before Christmas. What must be understood is neither Cal nor its dedicated followers longed for this invitation, to the Poinsettia Bowl, a 5-year-old gathering that amounts to a dry run for next week's more prestigious Holiday Bowl at the same stadium.
But the Poinsettia gets the team that finishes sixth in the Pac-10, and that's where the Golden Bears — who could have finished as high as a tie for second — landed after being humiliated by a mediocre Washington team in the Dec. 5 regular-season finale.
Into the offseason the Bears go, wondering what happened, leaving their supporters in a fog. They wanted to know which Cal team would show up and they got their answer.
They got both. The good Bears in spurts, the bad Bears during defining moments. Not exactly what they wanted to see.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.