Chase Garbers: From Cheez-It Bowl scapegoat to Big Game hero

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Moments after the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl ended, former Cal quarterback Chase Forrest fielded questions from the media in the bowels of Chase Field, where the Bears had fallen to TCU in overtime, 10-7. For a guy that entered the night having not taken a snap under center all year long, it was certainly a sight not many anticipated.

But after four different quarterbacks combined for nine interceptions on that fateful evening in the desert, everything was on the table. Forrest’s season debut came at the expense of then-redshirt freshman Chase Garbers, who had thrown three first half interceptions before being benched at halftime — spending the rest of the game on the sideline with his helmet off and a headset and baseball cap on.

After a winter that saw Cal head coach Justin Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin endure extra scrutiny when it came to the execution of the offense, Garbers responded with a spring practice season that separated him temporarily from quarterback Devon Modster, who had transferred from UCLA with his eyes locked on the starting job.

Garbers followed up a productive spring with an even better fall camp, earning praise from teammates and coaches alike for his growth as a pocket passer and improved ability to thread the deep ball.

The hard work paid off. While the offense didn’t improve by leaps and bounds, it did marginally, as Garbers and Cal’s stout defense got off to a quick start to the 2019 season, with the Bears winning their first four games and rising to the No. 15 ranking in the AP poll.

Two marquee road wins over then-No. 14 Washington and Ole Miss left Cal as the last remaining undefeated Pac-12 program heading into a home contest against Arizona State on Sept. 27.

We all know what happened next: on a designed run-pass option play, Garbers kept the rock and was upended a few yards short of the sideline. He landed hard on his shoulder, heading straight to the locker room after a quick checkup with team doctors, as Modster took over in the middle of a tied ball game.

The Bears lost that night and for the next month and change, as the team’s offense and defense both struggled against the heart of Pac-12 competition. Sitting at 4-4 after a 35-0 defeat at the hands of Utah, Cal entered its second bye week with little to no momentum. Fans begged for their starting quarterback — the same guy who took his fair share of heat throughout the 2018 season — to return.

Then, days before a home contest against Washington State, word from practice was that Garbers was nearing a return. While Modster took care of business to end the losing streak against the Cougars, Garbers ramped up his rehab and took part in a full week of practice ahead of the team’s senior night contest against USC.

In his first drive back, Cal found the end zone. But by halftime, the Bears trailed the Trojans and Garbers had departed again with another injury to his upper body — fortunately unrelated to his previous one, but nonetheless a tough blow.

Cal would go on to lose that contest, pitting itself against Stanford, with a shot at bowl eligibility on the line for both rivals.

While his status was in doubt even just hours prior to kickoff, Garbers took the field in front of nearly 50,000 people at Stanford Stadium, having played roughly just one quarter of football since his first injury in September.

On Saturday afternoon, the quarterback who led the Bears to their first 4-0 start since 2015 kept the Bears alive with his feet and perhaps most importantly, his toughness. While Stanford defensive end Jovan Swann and linebacker Casey Toohill gave Cal’s offensive line all it could handle, Garbers responded to the challenge with a little grit of his own.

Then, with the fourth quarter clock favoring Stanford and the Bears in a second half drought, No. 7 under center became a Golden Bear legend.

He teamed up with receiver Nikko Remigio to produce two of the greatest back-to-back drives in program history. On third and five in the red zone, Garbers rifled a pass to the back of the end zone — where Remigio netted his second career touchdown in front of a sea of blue and gold fans.

And with 2:23 to go, as the Cardinal nursed a 20-17 lead, Garbers led the offense onto the field. Cal legend Aaron Rodgers calls the first play of any big drive the most important one, and this one got started with a deep out to Remigio for 14 yards.

A couple of plays later, it was Trevon Clark’s circus catch along the Cal sideline that set off the first canon from the northeast corner of Stanford Stadium. Then, the Bears hurried up to the line so fast that Cal football’s official Twitter page spelled Clark’s first name wrong in the highlight tweet.

With a little more than a minute left on the clock, the Stanford defense sent its top pass rushers, hoping to force Cal into a third and long situation.

Instead, the final 16 yards of the Bears’ game-winning drive went down a little like this:

As it turns out, the game’s surprise starter was the ultimate finisher. A few minutes after Cal’s defense put the final touches on “the Game of the Decade”:

A few months from now, many may wonder, “What if Chase Garbers hadn’t gotten hurt midway through this season?” Some have already begun to dream about that reality.

But for now, regardless of what happens next week against UCLA or in whichever bowl game the Bears are sent to compete in, the man who watched the end of the Cheez-It Bowl from the sideline is now the Big Game hero.

In less than a year, Chase Garbers went from a borderline starter to a quarterback whose signature touchdown run and overall performance Saturday afternoon will go down as some of the greatest highlights in recent Cal football history.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.