Thursday, December 20, 2007

The First Match, Poinsettia Bowl

Poinsettia Bowl
Utah (8-4) vs. Navy (8-4)

The first bowl game will be everything for the future for Navy. Will it be able to move on and be a yearly bowl participant without head coach Paul Johnson, or will the program go back to being, well, Navy?

This is the fifth straight bowl game in the most impressive and productive run in the program's long and storied history, but with Johnson off to coach Georgia Tech, it'll be up to Ken Niumatalolo to take over and keep the train rolling. There won't be any major changes, Navy will still run the option as effective as ever, but will Niumatalolo be able to bring the same sort of magic that Johnson did, or will Utah continue to be one of the nation's best bowl teams?

Utah has won six straight postseason games and one in each of the last four seasons, and it turned around its 2007 and got here with an even hotter run. Banged up, bruised and with the season going nowhere, the Utes were 1-3 in late September after hitting rock-bottom with a 27-0 loss to UNLV. As the year went on, the team got better and better, beating Colorado State, Wyoming and New Mexico by a combined score of 105-13 over a three-game span before losing a heart-wrenching 17-10 battle against BYU on a painful final Cougar drive.

By not making mistakes on offense, tightening up the defense and getting tremendous pressure from the front seven, Utah turned into the team many expected it to be at the beginning of the year. While the early losses to Air Force and UNLV killed any shot of a Mountain West title, the Utes played harder and harder with each game and now look to bring the same intensity and precision to San Diego for their first meeting with the Midshipmen.

Navy came up with yet another improbable, bizarre season with a 59-52 loss to Delaware the week before breaking the 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame. It survived a 74-62 shootout with North Texas and outlasted Pitt in two overtimes, but lost to Ball State in overtime and needed everything in the bag to get by Duke.

Phenomenal in some areas and flat-out awful in others, Navy is a team that's great at what it's good it. The defense was among the worst in the country, but the running game led the nation. The passing attack was 119 out of 119, but the offense averaged 39.92 points per game. The punting game is abysmal, but the overall return game might be the best in college football. Can the ground game be enough to overcome all the deficiencies against a hot Ute team? That'll be the big test for Niumatalolo.

Navy should be able to get its 300-350 rushing yards, but if Utah's offense is picking apart the Midshipmen secondary, the passing game isn't there to make a comeback. Utah already played an option team in Air Force, which Navy beat 31-20, and gave up 334 yards, but that seems like several years ago. Niumatalolo has to get his offense, and it's now his offense, rolling well enough to keep Utah off the field.

It should be this simple: If Utah QB Brian Johnson is on, this could be a long, long opening game of the bowl season. If he makes a few mistakes, and Navy takes advantage of every break, this could be an extremely entertaining 60-minute battle. If nothing else, this will be the best Poinsettia Bowl ever. Of course, that's not saying much with only two played so far with TCU crushing Northern Illinois 37-7 last year and Navy running by Colorado State 51-30 two years ago.

Read more at Fox Sports

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