Cal football’s QB game show: How long will Wilcox keep playing roulette?

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If you weren’t paying close attention, you could have mistaken the Bears’ Saturday afternoon win over the Tar Heels for a round of quarterback roulette.

Cal head coach Justin Wilcox utilized all three of his available quarterbacks — redshirt junior Ross Bowers, redshirt freshman Chase Garbers and redshirt sophomore Brandon McIlwain — in a display of substitution schematics heretofore unseen by Bears fans. The rotation produced a win but left watchers initially stunned and later confused about some of Wilcox’s motivations.

A glance down at your phone or a quick trip to the bathroom meant that you could have missed a substitution of Garbers for Bowers, or McIlwain for Garbers or Bowers for McIlwain. The pace with which the subs were made meant that, at times, one of the QBs might get just one snap before being replaced again.

Wilcox’s response when asked about the QB situation?

“We knew they were going to play going into the game, and they all earned the right to play,” Wilcox said. “Some of the things that North Carolina was doing lent itself to adding an extra element. They were good up front and they weren’t going to sit there and let us run the ball.”

While no fan on either side of the ball could have predicted this, Wilcox’s point is valid — the Tar Heels’ defensive scheme meant that a quarterback quick on his feet could be more lethal, and Garbers and McIlwain certainly bring that dimension to the Bears’ offense more than Bowers does. And the quick rotations undoubtedly put North Carolina’s defense on its toes, leaving the team continually guessing what Cal might reveal on the next offensive snap.

But the way in which some of those rounds of substitutions were carried out was downright confounding. Bowers, who started the game and was touted as the starter all summer, didn’t see any time in the second half. He finished the game 8 of 17 in the air and passed for 56 yards, which was more than the passing yards gained by his quarterback counterparts. Granted, he seemed to have trouble connecting with his receivers, but the complete lack of playing time in the second half is confusing.

Another arena of disorientation? The fact that McIlwain’s time on the field was usually limited to a few snaps, meaning that it was unlikely he got any rhythm going with the Cal offense. He rushed for 26 yards on three attempts — which finished him as the second-most productive rusher for the Bears on the day. With that kind of impact, I would’ve expected Wilcox to keep McIlwain in for longer stretches of time.

Perhaps Wilcox was trying to push Bowers to up his game, providing him with tangible competition for the quarterback position. This wouldn’t be completely out of the question — and it would seem to be effective considering the fact that on Bowers’ first drive back in after being replaced by Garbers in the first half, he found an offensive rhythm that mirrored that of his successful spurts last season. That’s all speculation, of course, and because of the nature of the athletic world, we’ll likely never know what was behind Wilcox’s QB rotation.

One clear takeaway? Garbers appears to have the potential to be the most dangerous in both the run and pass game for the Bears. He showed no fear leaving his pocket and was the quarterback behind Cal’s only two offensive touchdowns of the game.

It will be interesting to see what Wilcox does next week on the road against BYU. If he continues with this strange game of quarterback roulette, it might be an indication that this kind of rapid rotation is something that we’ll see throughout the course of the season. If not, there’s no saying what his choice could mean for the rest of season. With three talented players at this position, Wilcox has some room to play around. Maybe too much. The issue is, QB subbing could cause issues against better teams, especially in the Pac-12.

Only time will tell if this is a trend or simply a one-off.

Sophie Goethals covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiegoethalss.