Brandon McIlwain’s first start at quarterback with Cal football wasn’t a total bust. Cal head coach Justin Wilcox has continually praised how McIlwain’s skills as a runner force opposing defenses into tough spots and inject an extra level of dynamism. That much was clear on his electric touchdown runs of 25 and 23 yards in the second quarter, as the Bears took an early lead over the Wildcats.
For a moment, it looked like the Bears had possibly figured out the puzzle on the offensive side of the ball. That didn’t turn out to be the case — at least for now.
Despite the Cal defense giving the offense chance after chance to seal the team’s first Pac-12 road win in nearly three years, the game ended in a 24-17 loss. McIlwain threw the ball 43 times, more than doubling his number of attempts as a Bear, and although he managed to tally more than 300 yards through the air and 100 more on the ground, three interceptions and two pick sixes wasted another defensive masterpiece. Let’s break down the second one, which ultimately sealed the loss with three minutes remaining in the game.
The Bears have four receivers and one running back on the field, with McIlwain in shotgun. Patrick Laird is to his left, and Moe Ways is out on his own, split out to the left. On the strong side of the formation, Kanawai Noa is lined up in the slot closest to McIlwain. Next farthest is tight end Ian Bunting, split out wide instead of playing on the line as a traditional tight end. The farthest out is Vic Wharton III.
There are three defensive lineman, four linebackers, one corner playing on top of Ways, another on top of Wharton, one safety posted deep in the middle of the field and another playing in the intermediate zone of the strong side, basically 10 yards off of the 6’7” Bunting.
McIlwain’s eyes are locked onto the three receivers on the strong side, so Ways’ route is largely irrelevant in this case. Wharton looks to simply be streaking down the field, but he is locked up effectively by the corner.
Bunting is running some sort of a comeback route, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s making a small break toward the middle of the field as he turns around about 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or if it’s just not a particularly crisp route. That may have contributed to the disastrous result of the play.
Noa runs a crossing pattern directly into the middle linebackers, who are dropping back into zone coverage. The strong-side linebacker initially seems to move with Noa, but seeing that he’s running directly into coverage, he moves back to cover Bunting.
With Noa crossing directly into coverage, McIlwain’s only real throwing lane is to his tight end. He notices this early, and his eyes lock in pretty quickly. The strongside linebacker can tell and makes a good break toward Bunting.
Because Bunting seems to have not made a crisp turn and the linebacker is breaking toward him, McIlwain has to overcorrect and put the throw toward the sideline to give Bunting a shot. Bunting has just enough time to make an attempt toward the sideline to get the ball. If McIlwain’s window had been tighter and closer to Bunting’s catching radius, he likely could have gotten a hand on it.
But McIlwain’s overcorrection toward the sideline is far too severe, and he misses Bunting by a few feet. In fact, he overthrows his target to a degree that the safety, who had been playing behind Bunting, has time to crash down on the play because McIlwain’s eyes were locked on Bunting.
The safety has an easy play on the ball and a clear path to the end zone from there. With only a few minutes left, Arizona takes a two-score lead and ultimately extends Cal’s Pac-12 road losing streak to 14 games.