Utah -8 Navy
The bowl season kicks off on Thursday December 20th with the 3rd annual Poinsettia Bowl. Navy is making their second Poinsettia Bowl appearance, having won the inaugural game in 2005 by a 51-30 count over Colorado State. The Midshipmen will undoubtedly come into this game with somewhat heavy hearts as their admiral, and the formerly highest paid federal employee, Paul Johnson has jumped ship to captain the Yellow Jackets. As a favor to my readers, I will now cease with all maritime related puns.
So what can we expect from this game? For starters, one of the nation's best pass defenses will probably not have the opportunity to showcase its abilities. The Utah Utes rank 15th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game, 2nd in opposing quarterback rating, 1st in passing touchdowns allowed, 3rd in opponent's completion percentage, 4th in yards per pass attempt, and 13th in sacks per game. Amazingly, the Utes allowed only 7 touchdown passes all season, and 4 came in their win over Louisville. Unfortunately for the Utes, Navy attempted the fewest passes of any team in Division IA this season. Their 122 pass attempts were 72 less than the second least pass-happy team (Air Force) and less than half (246) of the third least pass-happy team (West Virginia). They attempted more than 15 passes once (21 against Duke) and less than 10 passes seven times. Suffice it to say that Utah's biggest strength will probably not have a dramatic impact on the outcome of this game.
What about the Utes run defense; can they shut down one of the nation's best and most unique rushing attacks? Well, the Utes did play a team that runs an option offense at least vaguely similar to Navy's. That team was Air Force, and the results were not great. The Falcons gouged the Utes for 334 yards on the ground (5.30 per rush) in their 20-12 win in early September. The good news for the Utes is that game was early (second game of the year) and the Utes are likely (judging from what they accomplished over their last 10 games) at least marginally improved at stopping the run (though not necessarily the option). The Utes also get almost a month (since the bowl pairings were announced) to prepare for Navy's attack. Contrast this to the 9 days they had to prepare for Air Force after falling to Oregon State in the season opener. Utah will not be able to stop the Navy rush offense, but they should fair better against it than they did against the Air Force option.
All that is well and good, but the difference in this game will be Navy's defense. Their atrocious defense. The Midshipmen allowed 438 yards per game (99th in the nation). Only 4 teams failed to break 400 yards against the Navy defense. Those teams were Northern Illinois (93rd in yards per game), Temple (113th), Army (116th), and Notre Dame (119th aka last). Utah only finished 80th in yards per game (362 per game), but I would be shocked if they didn't top 500 against the Navy defense. Since beginning the season 2-3, and averaging only 304 yards per game, the Utes have gone 6-1, while averaging 404 yards per game. That is partly due to quarterback Brian Johnson's injury in the 2nd quarter of the season opener. He missed the rest of that game, the next two, and part of the next, before returning full time in game number 5.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, has led the Utes to bowl wins in each of his first two season, and the program has collectively won 6 bowl games in a row. Navy's struggles on defense, coupled with the departure of head coach Paul Johnson, and the solid Utah defense will give the Utes lucky number 7.
The Pick: Utah will cover the 8 point spread.