It takes 3 to tango: Cal football’s offense seeks consistency against winless Bruins

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Three-point phenoms Steph Curry and Klay Thompson don’t start their season for another few days, but it’s safe to say that they would vibe well with the quarterback situation just up the road in Berkeley. Here’s why:

In 2017, a quarterback wearing No. 3 started all 12 Cal football games, taking nearly every offensive snap in 2017. But by the third quarter of the 2018 season, three different quarterbacks had seen the field for the blue and gold. Through five games, the Bears have three wins and join Air Force and Western Kentucky as the only three Football Bowl Subdivision programs to utilize three starting quarterbacks in 2018.

Fresh off an unforgiving — and unlucky — loss at the hands of Arizona last weekend, Cal (3-2, 0-2) is seeking to avoid a third straight loss when the team hosts the winless UCLA Bruins on homecoming weekend.

“We’re coming off a tough, emotional loss,” said offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. “You have to, no matter what the outcome is, continue to consistently come back and focus on what the next task at hand is.”

Since 2012, Cal has beaten UCLA at home twice, meaning the Bears are hoping to protect their home territory against the Bruins for a third time in the past six years.

OK, that’s enough threes for now. The rest can be saved for kicker Greg Thomas’ left foot during Saturday’s game and for Tuesday night’s Thunder-Warriors showdown at Oracle Arena.

Regardless of which of Cal’s three quarterbacks — Brandon McIlwain, Chase Garbers or Ross Bowers — head coach Justin Wilcox opts to start, it’s all hands on deck against a UCLA team (0-5, 0-2) fighting to eradicate the goose egg still sitting in its win column halfway through the season.

Heading into the game, McIlwain is the likeliest of the three to start and take most of the snaps, and as Cal’s leading rusher, he’ll look to carve up a Bruin defense that has struggled to keep opposing quarterbacks in the pocket.

But don’t let the 0-5 record and ugly stats fool you just yet — UCLA is due for a win once head coach Chip Kelly’s pieces begin to mesh. Last week’s performance was a huge step in the right direction, as the new-look Bruins nearly took the college football world by surprise, putting a scare in No. 7 Washington, the clear-cut favorites in the Pac-12 after Stanford suffered a 19-point loss against unranked Utah on the same day.

While the Bears have yet to solve their quarterback conundrum, Kelly and the Bruins have had their fair share of drama under center as well. Michigan transfer Wilton Speight won the starting job out of fall camp, as expected, but lost the job in UCLA’s kickoff-weekend loss to Cincinnati after going down with an injury.

That left things in the hands of true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, whose promotion triggered the transfer of backup Devon Modster. Cal fans may remember Modster for dashing the Bears’ postseason dreams after entering last season’s week 13 showdown in relief of Josh Rosen, but this time they’ll be dealing with an unfamiliar face.

Thompson-Robinson’s numbers, like McIlwain’s, aren’t eye-popping by any means, but he looks like the guy for now and for the future as well, showcasing a keen ability to extend plays with his legs.

His 272 pass yards against the Huskies on a 71.1 percent completion rate were both career highs, as junior receiver Theo Howard (23 catches, 264 yards) has begun to distinguish himself as Thompson-Robinson’s primary target.

Under Kelly, known as the maestro of Oregon’s fast-paced Marcus Mariota-led offenses a handful of years ago, the Bruins have seemingly formed a three-headed monster to take the majority of carries: redshirt junior Joshua Kelley, freshman Kazmeir Allen and senior Bolu Olorunfunmi.

With the transition from former coach Jim Mora to Kelly, however, Olorunfunmi’s touches have diminished by the week, as have those of senior Soso Jamabo, a former staple under Mora’s offense who was suspended for the first two games of 2018 and hasn’t seen much action since.

If there’s one thing that’s certain regarding the Bears’ uncertain outlook, it’s that time is running out for them to right the ship — rewritten script or not. It’s been three (there’s that number again) years since the Bears participated in a bowl game, and with fans finally witnessing a defense that has been borderline dominant this season, the pressure is on to win at all costs during this portion of Pac-12 play.

“Every game is important,” McIlwain said. “The way you attack every game and the way you attack every day should be exactly the same. We’re really focused on ourselves and continuing to get better and continuing to fix the things, the problems, that we have.”

Josh Yuen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.