Chase Garbers. Brandon McIlwain. Evan Weaver. Three players who, a few weeks ago, weren’t exactly the first names that would come to mind when asked about Cal football’s loudest playmakers heading into the 2018 campaign.
Fast-forward to a warm Saturday night in Provo, when the three playmakers made sure that the once loud, late-night crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium remembered their names, spearheading a sloppy yet undoubtedly satisfying 21-18 win for Justin Wilcox’s squad.
Aside from Cal’s duo under center, receiver Kanawai Noa and tailback Patrick Laird showed out in a big way as well, each collecting long touchdown passes from Garbers and stepping up in a huge way for both of their quarterbacks. Noa, a nonfactor last weekend, led the Bears on Saturday with 93 yards on seven catches.
It took more than six quarters of action and three different quarterbacks for the offense to find its footing (albeit sporadically) in 2018. It took no more than six snaps in Week 1 for the defense to establish its transformative identity. Either way, both sides flashed their potential in Saturday’s victory, and the team will fly home eyeing a 3-0 start to the season against Idaho State next week.
“We made plays when we needed to. I think between the two of us, we did what we had to do to get the win,” McIlwain said of Garbers and himself.
For now, it appears as if incumbent starter Ross Bowers, the 2017 gunslinger who led Cal to a 5-7 record last season, is the odd man out of the team’s game of quarterback roulette, barring an undisclosed injury designation. While the offense has been far from perfect in two nonconference games thus far, there’s reason to believe that time with Garbers and McIlwain should smooth out some of the holes that the offense is showing.
Cal’s defense, on the other hand, can seemingly do no wrong. Accentuated by an interception apiece from Traveon Beck and Jaylinn Hawkins, the Cougar offense was virtually nonexistent in the second half.
How nonexistent? Zero first downs in the latter half until 3:30 left in the game. That’s 26.5 out of 30 minutes of game time.
Sunday NFL Kickoff is just a few hours away, but Cal’s domination felt eerily like a defensive NFL struggle and nothing like the high-scoring, late-night affairs that often constitute college football. With the Cougars operating almost exclusively under center against an active and animated defense, BYU’s scheme provided a glimpse into what Cal will undoubtedly go up against Nov. 17.
That day, of course, represents the team’s matchup with Stanford in the Big Game.
And if Saturday’s performance was any indication of how the Bears can set the edge against run-heavy, play-action teams, their showing against BYU is a dangerous sign for opposing teams.
“We’re the tone-setters, the linebackers,” Weaver said. “We try to go out every day and dominate the football. It’s all fun and games when you get the win.”
BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum began his 25th birthday with a pair of first downs on the Cougars’ first possession. Between a mix of Mangum, senior running back Squally Canada and a small core of tight ends and receivers, the BYU offense appeared in position to wear down the Cameron Goode-less Cal defense all evening.
But once the Cougars made it to the cusp of field goal range, the Bears clamped down in a huge way. Canada, who posted three touchdown runs against Arizona, was smothered time and time again by Weaver, Jordan Kunaszyk and even Ashtyn Davis from his safety position. BYU’s workhorse finished with just 49 yards on 16 carries, with just a 9-yard gain representing his longest run.
Despite the inevitable absence of linebacker Goode, who suffered a lower body injury last week, Cal’s defense continued to hold its own in the first half of play — for the most part. Aside from the scoreboard, the Cougars appeared to execute their game plan in the first half, which consisted of keeping the rock with Mangum and Canada and away from the playmakers wearing dark blue and gold.
But the scoreboard is all that the Bears cared about, and with a single streak of lightning, they quieted the “white out” crowd that had been jumping up and down to the likes of Kanye West and Bon Jovi prior to the game.
Garbers, announced as the starter just before kickoff after a week of uncertainty surrounding Cal’s quarterbacks, struggled in the early going, having a handful of passes batted down at the line of scrimmage in the opening frames. But the best throw of his collegiate career came at an optimal time — a laser to a sprinting Laird down the middle of the field, effectively silencing the home crowd with the flick of his wrist.
When all was said and done, both defenses had the noticeable edge, with the Bears up 7-3 at the break.
“It was a team win,” Wilcox said. “They all are. We didn’t play our cleanest but found a way to win. We solved problems, and figured out what we needed to do next, and I’m really proud of them for that.”
Cal entered halftime with just 52 yards through the air, all attributed to Garbers. The Cougars nearly doubled both the Bears’ first down totals and time of possession, and it seemed like only a matter of time before BYU would exert itself offensively.
But as the defense continued to stand tall in the midst of a white hurricane, Cal’s offense came out of the locker room with an assertion of its own — and it came with an “Aloha!” from the Hawaiian, Noa.
Cue Garbers’ best pass to date of his young career, although nobody wearing white was within 10 yards of Cal’s long-haired receiver on the freshman’s deep ball down the left sideline. Fifty-two yards, 14-3 Bears. Another lightning bolt play and more silence from the home crowd.
Another defensive stop later drew the boo-birds, which fired up Cal’s sideline all the more. It seemed as if the Bears were ready to drop the hammer on the crowd, which was getting more and more antsy by the minute.
But a costly mistake by running back Derrick Clark — the first of three turnovers by Cal in the second half — resulted in a monumental 36-yard scoop-and-score for defensive back Dayan Ghanwoloku after a huge hit from linebacker Butch Pau’u.
The play ignited both the home sideline and the home crowd, cutting Cal’s lead to 14-10. Garbers, who had led the Bears’ first two touchdown drives, appeared ready to refocus the offense.
But his number wasn’t called. Enter McIlwain.
The South Carolina transfer, who calls Russell Wilson his favorite current NFL player, displayed Wilson-esque moves on his way to leading the team’s third scoring drive of the game. With both his arms and his legs, McIlwain became a threat every which way throughout the second half.
His 2-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter — good for his first score in the blue and gold — gave the Bears what seemed like enough breathing room. McIlwain ultimately led the team with 74 rush yards on 16 attempts — a notable increase in his usage from a week prior.
Mangum’s birthday was effectively ruined, and Cal was on the cusp of a marquee win.
A late score from BYU’s veteran quarterback to Brayden El-Bakri made things close in the final minute of play, but it was Hawkins on the receiving end of the ensuing onside kick.
On “white out” night in Provo, the Cal defense nearly posted a shutout in the second half, with the only BYU points coming on Ghanwoloku’s fumble return and El-Bakri’s score with less than a minute to go.
Cal managed to overcome three turnovers, both offensively and on special teams. Overall, the Bears outpaced the Cougars 398-287 in total yards, continuing the defensive revelation that began last weekend against UNC.
“Just to start 2-0 and coming to a great environment and beating a really good BYU team, it just shows how much we want it this year,” Weaver said.