SAN DIEGO — SAN DIEGO -- A Christmas garden of floating helium balloons, a star-spangled banner, complete with rockets' red glare and a pair of Navy F-18s with red and green lights flying overhead set the festive mood at Qualcomm Stadium last night for the Poinsettia Bowl.
Shortly thereafter, Navy kicked off to Utah and the first bowl game of the season was on.
In the end, Utah's quarterback Brian Johnson found his passing arm and the Utes found the gap in the Navy secondary to rally from a 10-point third quarter deficit to win, 35-32.
It was a wild finish, as most of Navy's game are, but a touchdown by Zerbin Singleton, who then recovered an onside kick, was not enough to get the best of Utah last night. A final, desperation pass by Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was picked off by defensive back Joe Dale to end Navy's final hope.
Bowl officials said 46,000 tickets were sold for the game and a bowl-record 39,129 showed up on a 57-degree night and included sprinkles and fog in the third quarter.
After the first three minutes of the second half, the third quarter and most of the fourth belonged to Utah and that was enough.
Navy made a brilliant goal-line stand with the score 28-25, but its offense could not move the football and with 1:27 to play Utah running back Darrell Mack rushed 1 yard into the end zone to put the game away.
Navy's defense stopped the Utes on their first offensive series of the second half and then watched as its offense increased the Mids' lead on a 43-yard run by Eric Kettani to 17-7 with 11:52 to play.
But after that, Utah opened up its game, taking what the Mids gave them and more.
Picking on the Navy secondary, Johnson drove his team 59 yards and into the end zone on a final pitch to Jereme Brooks for 23 yards and the score. Four minutes after that, Errek Richards caught a 40-yard pass for a 21-17 And with 12:;47 left in the fourth quarter the lead grew to 28-17.
But Navy, who seemed out of it only minutes earlier, gathered its offense and stormed the field driving from its own 19 yard line to score on a 10-yard run by Shun White. Afterward, Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada pushed through for a two point conversion to bring Navy back to within three-points at 28-25 with 8:48 to play.
From there it was anyone's game.
Utah drove the length of the field, to the one-foot line. And it was there Navy made its stand stopping Mack on fourth-and-one.
It was still anyone's game.
But the Mids quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhaka was stopped on fourth and 2 at Navy's own 10 yard line, turning the ball over to Utah.
Zerbin Singleton ran 58 yards to again bring the Mids within 35-32, but that's where it ended.
Navy had little success moving the football on its first series and fumbled the punt to put Utah in good position at Navy's 44-yard line. But three plays later, Navy linebacker Ross Pospisil pulled in his first interception of the season and returned it 29 yards to reestablish Navy at the Utah 47.
By this time fans had already started wondering what new head coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper would do to open up the Utah defense.
After a first down, provided by a face-mask penalty, the answer came on first-and-10 when Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada threw deep to Reggie Campbell, who could not handle the over-the-shoulder catch.
Three plays later, Campbell caught a 29-yard pass by his fingertips to move the Mids to the Utah 9. Kettani and Shun White moved the ball to the 4, and Campbell, who had 53 yards rushing in the half, was heading for the goal line when he fumbled at the 2.
Utah recovered the ball but was forced to punt, which marked the first time this season Navy's defense had stopped the opposition on the first two drives of a game.
As the quarter ended, Navy was again on the move, inside the Utah 40. This time the Mids settled for a 50-yard field-goal attempt by Joey Bullen. The kick was long enough but wide left.
With first-and-10 at the Navy 13, Utah tried its first razzle-dazzle with a pass from quarterback Brian Johnson to Brian Hernandez, who threw a lateral to Marquis Wilson. The play was read perfectly by Navy's Ram Vela for a loss of 2 yards.
But Utah wasn't to be denied on the series as Darrell Mack finished the drive with a 5-yard run up the middle for a 7-0 lead with 8:42 left in the half.
Navy's offense still seemed to be feeling out the Utah defense, perhaps a tick longer than it would have if former coach Paul Johnson was still in charge. But this was the first game under the new coaching staff, and transition takes time.
Everything seemed to click on the ensuing drive, though. Starting at their own 30-yard line, the Mids used an old-fashioned bootleg by Kaheaku-Enhada for a 17-yard gain. On the next play, Utah was called for pass interference, moving the ball to the Utah 33, and on second down a pitch to White after a fake handoff went for 19 yards to the 11. Three plays later, Kaheaku-Enhada pushed his way into the end zone for a 7-7 tie.
Navy's defense, playing its best half of the season, forced Utah to punt without a first down on the next series and rushed All-American kicker Louie Sakoda into a 29-yard punt, giving Navy possession at its own 47-yard line.
The Mids were called for their third false start of the game on third-and-eight at the Utah 26-yard line and had to settle for a 39-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead with 28 seconds left.
When the half ended, Niumatalolo approached the officials to complain about the Utah players' mimicking Kaheaku-Enhada's cadence, causing the Mids to false start, something they had been rarely guilty of during the regular season.