Thursday, December 24, 2009

CFI Recap: Poinsettia Bowl – Utah 37, California 27

The bowl juggernaut that is Utah football could not be stopped, not by an early 14-0 deficit, not by a true freshman quarterback and certainly not by Pac-10 foe California. The Utes have now won nine straight bowl games, which matches USC’s streak from 1923-45. They are two away from Florida State’s all-time streak of 11, which they achieved from 1985-96.

* Just Wynn Baby: Utah’s true freshman quarterback Jordan Wynn had a happy holiday homecoming—the California native completed 26-36 for a career-high 338 yards and three scores (one interception). It was the first 300-yard game of his career.

As good as the final numbers were, his night didn’t get off to a good start. Already trailing 7-0, Utah took the field for their third possession of the game when Wynn threw an unacceptable interception, which Cal’s Eddie Young returned for a touchdown putting the Utes in a 14-0 hole. The freshman didn’t see the Cal linebacker and threw the ball right to Young. Wynn was locked in on his receiver, who was running a slant behind the linebacker. You can put that one in the vault on label it “freshman mistake”.

At that point many might have thought the stage was too big for the rookie, but on the very next possession Wynn led the Utes on a scoring drive. Wynn’s first touchdown pass of the day was a thing of perfection, connecting with his target in the back right corner of the end zone. During the play, he put the ball right on the hands of his man and just out of the reach of the Cal defender. On his second touchdown pass, a Cal linebacker had excellent coverage on Utah freshman Kendrick Moeai running down the middle of the field—with very little room for error—and Wynn dropped it right into the hands of his tight end to give Utah its first lead of the day, 17-14. The first-year signal caller displayed timing, touch and accuracy throughout the contest, and the kid throws a beautiful spiral. The future is bright in Salt Lake City, with three more years of Wynn(ing) ahead.

* Ready, Set, Go: John Wooden once said, “Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail.”

Too often coaches are unprepared and it costs their team. Facing a fourth and less than one yard, the Utes went right to the line of scrimmage, snapped the football and converted. You love to see that—a coach with a plan. There was no debating, no looking over the play chart—head man Kyle Whittingham already knew what he was going to do and what play he was going to call. Why don’t they all? These situations will come up and they should be prepared for. Also, big ups to coach for calling a hook-and-lateral in the red zone, one of the prettiest plays in football, which is not used often enough and usually only in desperation.

* More Utah Offense: In the fourth quarter, Utah’s senior wide out David Reed made the first man miss on a short pass, which he turned into a 39-yard gain, setting the single-season school record for both receptions & receiving yards (81 receptions for 1,188 yards). Reed has very quick feet and is more of a playmaker than many anticipated—he’s elusive and has good balance. Reed also has reliable hands and does a good job of floating to an open spot against zone defenses, to give his quarterback a nice target. Where the Connecticut native comes up short is in the measurables—he’s not very big (6’0”/190 pounds) or fast.

As good as Reed was, Jereme Brooks may be even more dangerous after the catch. The junior caught seven passes for 76 yards and a touchdown, his seventh scoring snag of the season. Freshman wide out Luke Matthews caught three passes on the day and the aforementioned Kendrick Moeai, their freshman tight end, caught his first two touchdown passes of his career. Moeai is an impressive looking athlete at 6’5” and 235 pounds.

Another playmaker Utah will have back for 2010 is all-purpose talent Shaky Smithson…that’s right Shaky Smithson, an announcers dream. Smithson’s season best 61-yard kick return set the Utes up for good field position on their first touchdown of the day. With Matt Asiata out, Smithson has emerged as their Wildcat quarterback. Not only can he run, but Smithson possesses a decent arm and Utah let him air it out twice. A would be touchdown was called back because of illegal formation. While the arm strength is there, Shaky needs to show a little more discretion—on both plays it appeared he was throwing it up no matter what. Smithson also caught two passes and he can make things happen after the catch.

Along the line, we were disappointed with the play of senior left tackle Zane Beadles who had trouble with the Cal defensive ends. At times, Beadles was knocked back, tossed aside and run by. He made his share of blocks, but the negative plays are why he will probably shift inside to play guard at the next level. The senior still should receive a mid-round grade for the 2010 draft.

* Best Pro Prospect – Utah: FS Robert Johnson – 4 tackles, 1 INT, 2 Pass Breakups

The LA native let it be known, you don’t want to come into his hood when he laid out Cal receiver Verran Tucker—the ball was already dropped by Tucker, but Johnson’s message was sent. If you come across the middle of the field, expect to get hit…hard. On the next possession, Johnson and Tucker met again at just about the same spot and while the safety didn’t come up with a devastating blow, he did knock the ball away from the Cal wide out. In the third quarter, Cal’s tight end dropped a pass and may have heard Johnson’s footsteps–who could blame him?

Johnson is more than a big hitter, he plays the ball very well, along with putting his anticipatory skills and speed to good use. On consecutive second-half possessions, Johnson made great reads on the football—the first one he deflected setting up his teammate to intercept the ball. On Cal’s next offensive play, Johnson made the pick himself, as he displayed his excellent hands—most DBs would not have come down with that INT. The interception was Johnson’s sixth of the season and 13th of his career.

* Senior Linebackers: Joining Johnson as Utah’s top defenders are seniors Koa Misi and Stevenson Sylvester. Misi is listed as a defensive end on Utah’s depth chart, but he played much of the game standing up rather than with his hand on the ground. While he looks comfortable doing both, at the next level Misi is best suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. At times he had trouble getting off blocks when he engages his opponents, so playing in space would suit him well. He has enough speed and quickness to get into the backfield even when he’s lined up at the second level. Misi also dropped back in coverage; a skill scouts will want to see more of. He plays with good effort and if he can’t get to the quarterback, the senior will get his hands up and look to close off the quarterback’s passing lane; he’s always looking to make something happen. Misi finished the game with six tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and a half a sack. Bottom line—he is a good outside pass rusher, who can play with his hand on the ground or in a two-point stance. The California native possesses good athleticism and size (6’3”/263 pounds), but he needs to improve his technique if he is going to fulfill his potential at the next level. He could provide great value in the mid-rounds.

A more traditional outside linebacker, Sylvester, also hopes to play on Sundays next year. Recording a game-high eight tackles (0.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 Pass Breakup), the senior may have played his best game of the season, which also might be the healthiest he’s been all year. Sylvester showed good recognition of screen passes, either blowing them up before the play developed or making the tackle immediately after the catch. When he’s allowed to run free, Sylvester is a playmaker who can cover ground, and a sure tackler to boot. In space, it’s important he avoid blockers using his quickness, because he is going to have trouble when engaging with offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage. Sylvester is good with the ball in his hands, retuning his interception for a touchdown off of a deflected pass by Johnson. This was only his second career interception, but he also returned his first to paydirt (2006 versus Utah State). Some people believe Sylvester may go undrafted, but he is worth a late round selection. The Las Vegas native is an instinctive and passionate player, who could be effective with a strong defensive line to protect him.

* Stars of Tomorrow: Utah has several young players emerging on the defensive side of the ball, beginning with defensive linemen Sealver Siliga and Dave Kruger. Siliga made his presence felt from his defensive tackle position—you have to double-team him, otherwise he’s going to wreck havoc. The sophomore blew passed Cal’s center on his way to the quarterback, proving that he can really move for a big man (6’3”/300 pounds). Even when he doesn’t make the play himself, he can blow things up by getting into the offensive backfield, allowing his linebackers to come in unmolested and clean up. We really like what we saw from the Utah native. He is powerful and quick, allowing him to play both tackle and nose guard over the center. Siliga registered six tackles, including his sack. Not as active, but providing some potential for the future is Kruger, who is also versatile, able to play at the nose or defensive end. If the name is familiar it should be, Dave is the younger brother of former Ute Paul Kruger, who was a second round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL Draft. The younger Kruger only made one tackle, but it was for a loss. He also did an excellent job of reading and recognizing a screen pass, dropping back in the passing lane, preventing Cal from executing the play called.

Utah really trusts their defensive backs, as they often played eight and nine defenders near the line of scrimmage and blitzed on a regular basis. Much of that faith was bestowed upon coverman Brandon Burton. The sophomore blanketed Cal receivers throughout the contest. On one play, he ran a better route than the Golden Bears’ receiver and positioned himself in between the wide out and the spot he was running to (where the football was being thrown). He was excellent in coverage throughout, mostly in man-to-man. He also isn’t afraid to mix-it up against the run, a good open field tackler, making him a complete football player. Burton made four tackles, two for a loss and broke up a pass.

* Best Pro Prospect – Cal:
DE Tyson Alualu – 5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs

For the first 20 minutes of the game, Tyson Alualu was unblockable. He was all over the place, lining up as both the left defensive end and right defensive end, with his hand on ground on or in a two-point stance. The senior even dropped back into coverage on occasion. Early on he had has way with Beadles, Utah’s left tackle, even beating double teams. He displayed strength, explosiveness, quickness and speed. He has the ability to shed blocks and once he gets his hands on the ball carrier, the tackle is as good as made. Alualu also has the lateral quickness to make plays moving down the line of scrimmage and the closing speed to finish. At times, the defensive end went through and around linemen at will. He is an effort player as well, showing good hustle by making the tackle on Utah wide receiver Brooks down the field. When the Utes went to the quick passing game, it neutralized Alualu’s effectiveness. He also appeared to wear down some as the game went on, which makes one wonder about his stamina. To be fair, the tempo of the game and the fact Utah dominated the time of possession could have played a role as well. At 6’3” the Hawaii native possesses the measurables to play either 3-4 defensive end or 4-3 defensive tackle, which increases his value on draft day. His versatility should make a player of particular interest for teams that like to use both schemes. He will likely be a second round pick.

* More Cal Defense: If Alualu isn’t the Golden Bears’ top prospect, then Syd’Quan Thompson is the man. It’s close, as Thompson also projects to go sometime in the second round. The senior corner made two tackles and broke up two passes, but really wasn’t given many opportunities to make plays. Utah did not throw Thompson’s way much. On one pass thrown to Thompson’s area (to Reed), the corner got his hands on the football. Later in the game, despite playing with bad ankle, the Sacramento native used his make-up speed to knock away a pass down the field. The only criticism of Thompson’s game was his tackling technique against the run—we’d like to see him be more fundamental with his tackling. Too often he just propels himself at the ball carrier. That’s not going to work on Sundays.

On the other side, junior cornerback Bryant Nnabuife is not afraid to make mix it up. He didn’t allow many yards after the catch and also came to play against the run. Nnabuife had five tackles, including a half a tackle for a loss.

Safety Sean Cattouse made eight tackles (1 TFL), but had his share of missed tackles throughout the game both against the pass and run. He was also beat by Brooks for a touchdown. The sophomore appeared to have decent straight-line speed, but didn’t move as well laterally.

Alualu wasn’t the only Golden Bear linemen to show promise. Fellow defensive end, Cameron Jordan (6’4”/287 pounds) has the classic build of a 3-4 end and may have the frame to put on a few more pounds. Not as quick as Alualu, Jordan is strong at the point of attack, with a good bull rush. The junior also used a swim move to get around Utah’s Beadles.

Freshman nose guard Kendrick Payne is another active big man. The 300-pounder beat a solid lineman in Utah left guard Caleb Schlauderaff on his way to a sack of Wynn. Of his three tackles, Payne recorded two tackles for a loss. The freshman can move well and is a player to watch for years to come for the Golden Bears.

At linebacker, Mychal Kendricks was a force. Listed as a second teamer on Cal’s depth chart, Kendricks was their most effective player in the back eight. The sophomore made seven tackles, three for a loss, one sack and he broke up a pass. He was explosive and made several big hits, both against the run and in the passing game. Kendricks did a great job in the open field, using sound technique to make the play in one-on-one situations. Utah doesn’t have a real speedster coming out of the backfield, so it bears watching down the road how Kendrick fairs in open field situations against quicker players.

Mike Mohamed also made seven tackles, but didn’t make the same type of impact. He is an excellent tackler and runs to the ball well, able to navigate through the muck to get to the ball carrier. The junior OLB was solid, but we’ve seen him play better.

* Shane Vereen At His Best: Even without Jahvid Best, the Cal running game wasn’t the problem. Shane Vereen ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. While he may not have the speed or explosiveness of Best, Vereen is a big-play back in his own right, as evidenced by his 36-yard touchdown run. His ability to cut back on a play designed to go right opened things, given the fact that there wasn’t much room for him where the play was designed to go, Vereen saw the opening to the left and was gone. Nice burst. Vereen also showed strength on one particular play where he was caught in the backfield, but then broke away from a tackle to pick up five yards. It was as impressive as his long runs.

* Inconsistent Passing Game:
The ups and downs begin with quarterback Mike Riley. He is such a momentum player. When he gets in rhythm, he can look impressive, but then other times he looks very uncomfortable with all his movements. Riley has a good arm and can put some zip on his passes when need be. He’s also capable of putting the ball on the money with a small window to get it in, which he did on occasion, as well as showing perfect touch. But when he overthrows the fullback wide open in the flat it makes you ask: how can he miss by that much? At times, he doesn’t set his feet before making the throw. Ball security is also an issue. In fact, Riley needs to protect the ball better after bringing it back down, which led to a fumble against the Utes. Frustratingly inconsistent describes Riley well.

Of course, it’s not all on Riley. The junior signal caller threw a rope to senior Verran Tucker—a quick throw on the money—which was flat out dropped by the senior pass catcher. Sophomore wide out Marvin Jones wasn’t much of factor until late in the game.

Another sophomore, tight end Anthony Miller (five receptions, 55 yards) displayed glimpses of potential stardom down the road, but he too fell in line with the yo-yo that was Cal’s passing game. Miller made some tough catches, even after taking a big hit from Johnson. He also dropped a pass (footsteps) and saw another bounce right off his hands. He can stretch the field and is very dangerous running down the middle. Miller made the catch of the day with a full extension one-handed grab. He is an impressive athlete for a tight end, who is more developed as pass-catcher than blocker at this point.

Photos Courtesy of Dennis Hubbard & University of California