The fourth quarter of Cal’s late-night battle with Arizona rapidly devolved into a turnover-heavy, yellow-penalty-flag-flying, hot-potato-esque game of possession changes in which the Bears found themselves getting burned, 24-17.
In his first career start as a Bear, quarterback Brandon McIlwain showed glimpses of brilliance over two and a half quarters that hinted that it won’t be his last. Marred by four turnovers and a myriad of 13 penalties costing 115 yards, however, Cal’s shaky offense simply couldn’t support its defense that kept the game within reach all night.
“We just shot ourselves in the foot too many times — that’s really what it comes down to,” said Cal wide receiver Moe Ways.
The score remained tight up until the waning minutes of the ballgame, but after two Cal interceptions, it was Arizona who busted things open and got (a bit) of its swagger back as it sought to make up for early season struggles.
“Really disappointing and unacceptable, starting with me,” head coach Justin Wilcox said about his team’s play.
The Wildcats advanced to 3-3 while Cal fell to 3-2, still winless in Pac-12 play, extending its losing streak in Pac-12 road games to 14.
“We had six procedure penalties,” Wilcox said. “We’ve got smart guys — we’ve got to play smarter — we can’t make dumb mistakes like that.”
At least for 60 minutes in Tucson, the Bears ditched their two-quarterback system and enabled McIlwain to showcase his passing abilities early in the game. On the flip side, McIlwain is a young quarterback who cannot be expected to be completely polished at this point in the season and made a number of mistakes in the second half.
As for Arizona’s offense, all eyes were on quarterback Khalil Tate, who, over the course of five games, totaled a meager 69 rushing yards. Tate put up almost a fourth of that on the first drive of the game against Cal — a drive that resulted in seven points on the scoreboard for the Wildcats. But, the glory was short-lived, and once again, the opposing defense silenced Tate.
Still, the Wildcats’ offense, led by Tate in the air and running back J.J. Taylor on the ground, put up a swift quick 10 points in the first quarter — all to which Cal’s offense had no answer in the first quarter.
But in the second quarter, McIlwain got the train moving. By the end of the first half, seven different Cal players had receptions, including 15- and 14-yard catches from Jordan Duncan and Jeremiah Hawkins, respectively.
Heading into the locker room, McIlwain was responsible for both touchdowns that put the Bears up, 14-10, and 203 of 217 of his team’s total yards.
It was far from easygoing in a low-scoring first half though, with each team battling costly penalties; Arizona committed six penalties for 53 yards, while Cal committed six for 50.
The defenses for both teams were held down by their linebackers — Colin Schooler for Arizona and Jordan Kunaszyk for Cal. Kunasyzk finished with 11 total tackles, 10 of which were solo tackles.
The Bears, who deferred to receive the second half, couldn’t get things going and once again, put the ball in the hands of Tate. Immediately, Arizona got the ball moving quickly on its first touch of the second half.
Fueled by the speedy Taylor, the Wildcats found themselves driving into Bear territory and eyeing the red zone. But a dart from Tate, seemingly just as quickly, found itself in the hands of Cal cornerback Camryn Bynum.
The interception did not result in any points, though, and the Bears would end the game just as they started — scoreless. Cal put the ball in the hands of multiple guys and established a bit of a tempo but simply couldn’t string together first downs when it mattered in either the first or the fourth quarters.
On a fourth and one red zone situation early in the fourth quarter, McIlwain kept the ball in search of moving the chains. McIlwain had done a lot heading into the fourth quarter — he almost did it all, but ultimately, his efforts couldn’t get his team the first down or the win.
“I’m beating myself up because I should’ve got the extra yard when it came my way,” Ways said.
A late Cal fumble recovery by Ashtyn Davis gave the Bears life. Driving downfield with just under six minutes to play, McIlwain went to work orchestrating his offense — until he wasn’t. The once favorable Cal recovery ended in an Arizona interception.
The Bears’ defense managed to hold the Wildcats to a field goal attempt — no good — and Cal still had hope. But alas, despite 476 yards to Arizona’s 265, the penalties and turnovers came back to bite the Bears for a second straight week.
Two pick-sixes from McIlwain, one by Arizona cornerback Azizi Hearn and one by safety Scottie Young Jr, solidified Cal’s fate and that Arizona would take the victory — ugly or not.
With 12 seconds left in the game, Cal safety Jaylinn Hawkins even furthered the bitter tastes in Cal’s mouth, being ejected from the game for a targeting penalty on a desperation onside kick and now, having to miss the first half of next week’s homecoming matchup against UCLA.
“Our goals are still in front of us — we control our own destiny,” Ways said. “We all have a wake-up call within ourselves.”
“(There’s) no defeat in this team, and I’m going to make sure there’s not,” Kunaszyk said. “The sun is going to rise tomorrow, and we’re going to learn from it.”