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Poinsettia Bowl: U’s bowl roll continues (12/20)

By Cody Brunner

SAN DIEGO — The Poinsettia Bowl was expected to be a shootout. Apparently, Navy and Utah didn’t get the memo until halftime.

The two teams exploded for 558 yards and 50 points in the second half, and when the dust settled, the Utes left Qualcomm Stadium with a 35-32 victory.

“It took us a bit to knock the rust off,” U quarterback Brian Johnson said.

Navy came into the contest with one of the worst passing defenses in the nation, but the Utes decided to err on the side of caution in the first half and kept it on the ground. The result was eight Utah first downs and a 10-7 deficit heading into the break.

Utah came out in the second half with a new gameplan: pass the ball. Keyed by the play of Johnson, who completed 11 consecutive passes at one point and went 16-for-18 in the second half, Utah scored 21 unanswered points en route to the team’s seventh consecutive bowl victory.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said after the game that the run-happy attack in the first half was an attempt to keep the ball out of the hands of Navy’s potent offense.

“We went in trying to keep their offense on the sideline to chew the clock, but that’s really not our style,” Whittingham said. “We just cut loose in the second half and Brian Johnson took over the game with his athletic ability.”

Johnson finished the game 20-for-25 with 226 passing yards and one touchdown. The junior also made some nifty plays with his feet, scoring on a 19-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter and finishing the game with 69 rushing yards. Both teams struggled through a first half marred by turnovers and penalties. The Midshipmen drove the length of the field late in the first quarter, but running back Reggie Campbell fumbled the ball at the goal line and Utah linebacker Joe Jiannoni recovered. Johnson wasn’t exactly the embodiment of perfection, either. The junior started the game two-for-five with an interception, before getting on track.

“Initially, we shot ourselves in the foot a little bit with penalties and the turnover,” Johnson said. “(Ross Pospisil) made a nice play stepping in front of my pass. I should have tucked (the ball) and ran.”

The Utes found themselves in a 17-7 hole early in the third quarter after Navy fullback Eric Kettani broke away for a 43-yard touchdown run, but Utah battled back.

Freshman Jereme Brooks took a reverse pitch 23 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to three. Then Johnson connected with wide receiver Brian Hernandez on a 40-yard pass to take the lead for good.

Johnson stretched the lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter with his touchdown run, before Navy answered with a 10-yard pass from Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada to Shun White and a successful two-point conversion to put the Midshipmen behind 28-25.

Still, Utah remained in the driver’s seat late when they marched down to the Midshipmen one-yard line. That’s where the drive ended, though. The steely resolve of the Navy defense showed through and the Midshipmen held the Utes out of the endzone.

The Utes returned the favor by forcing a turnover on downs on the ensuing Navy possession and Utah’s Darrell Mack rushed one yard for a touchdown to put the Utes up 35-25.

Navy answered back with a touchdown of its own — a 58-yard pass from Kaheaku-Enhada to Zerbin Singleton — and was able to recover an onside kick at their own 42-yard line.

But that’s where the Midshipmen’s comeback attempt ended. Utah’s Joe Dale stepped in front of a pass from Kaheaku-Enhada and the Utes escaped with a win.

“I underthrew the ball so (Navy wide receiver) Reggie (Campbell) could stop and come back for it,” Kaheaku-Enhada said. “I saw (Dale), but I thought he was deep enough and Reggie could stop and come back.”

The win gave the Utes their seventh consecutive bowl victory and sent the seniors out with five straight bowl wins.

“It’s a great accomplishment for our seniors and for our program,” Utah linebacker Joe Jiannoni said. “To be able to go to five bowl games and win them all, I don’t know anybody else that’s done that.”

Game notesUtah running back Darrell Mack led the team in rushing, picking up 76 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Eight different players scored touchdowns. Brian Johnson was named the Offensive Player of the Game while Dale was named the Defensive Player of the Game. The Utes’ seven-game bowl-win streak ties Boston College for the longest postseason win streak in the nation. Attendance was 39,129 — the largest ever to watch a Poinsettia Bowl. After the game, officials from the Metro Athletic Conference issued a statement admitting their ruling on a crucial goal-line fumble by Utah’s Jereme Brooks was incorrect. Navy should have been credited with a touchback fumble recovery.

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