Battle of the heavyweights: Defensive bout anticipated as Cal, Illinois meet in 2019 Redbox Bowl

Sunny Shen/Staff

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The distance from UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara is less than 50 miles.

The distance between Santa Clara and Champaign, Illinois is more than 2,000 miles.

When Cal and Illinois kick off the 2019 Redbox Bowl on Monday afternoon, it’s no secret that one team has home field advantage on its side.

But regardless of where the Bears play their second bowl contest in as many years, a strong showing from their Big Ten opposition is anticipated.

“Illinois does a great job of taking the ball away,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “We want to play with really good habits, and defensively, we want to do the same. Possessions will be of premium in this game.”

A win to close out this year would mark Cal’s eighth victory of the 2019 campaign, the team’s highest mark since 2015, and its first bowl win since that same season. It also means ending the year on a three-game win streak after the Bears defeated in-state rivals Stanford and UCLA across consecutive weekends.

Cal and Illinois are meeting on the gridiron for the first time since 2005 and the 11th time overall. While the Bears are just 3-7 against the Illini in program history, Cal won the last two meetings against their opponents from the Midwest in 2003 and 2005.

The 2019 Fighting Illini are a group currently coached by former NFL staple Lovie Smith, one of the top minds in the business. In 2019, Illinois’ signature moment came in an upset win over previously unbeaten Wisconsin, ranked No. 6 at the time, on a last second field goal from junior kicker James McCourt.

“So far, I see that they have a really good group of skilled players,” said cornerback Camryn Bynum. “We have to be on every play.”

While Cal has seen redshirt senior linebacker Evan Weaver blossom from a relatively unheralded recruit to the leading tackler in the nation, Illinois has watched the exponential growth of its own man in \the middle: senior linebacker Dele Harding — who is second only to Weaver in total tackles in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

Harding’s growth from a player whose highlights primarily came on special teams to an All Big-Ten selection encapsulates an Illinois storyline which mirrors Cal’s — flashes of offensive consistency with seemingly endless firepower on defense.

Next to Harding stand fellow linebackers Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler, two much-improved players in their own right. But before an offensive line reaches their level, it must handle star defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., whose eight sacks on the year are more than double the total of any other player on the Illinois roster.

“Everyone’s really solid up front,” said right tackle Jake Curhan of the Illinois defense. “It’s different from a lot of teams we play in our conference. Less exotic for sure, a lot of the same stuff, but that’s because they’re good at doing a lot of the same stuff.”

Finally, the Illini secondary is accentuated by the play of sophomore strong safety Sydney Brown, a near-match for Cal’s Jaylinn Hawkins. While Brown’s 80 total tackles in 2019 (second on the team behind Harding) speak for themselves, his three interceptions are tied for the team lead on a squad that averages an interception per contest.

Those are the primary faces on the defense preparing to slow down Chase Garbers, Christopher Brown Jr. and the rest of Cal’s offense Monday afternoon. The Redbox Bowl notably marks a farewell to offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin and running backs coach Nick Edwards, who will depart to Cal Poly in the coming weeks.

With the Bears deeming senior Jordan Duncan unavailable, the potential returns of slot receivers Kekoa Crawford and Jeremiah Hawkins would be welcome additions to a group that has relied heavily on Nikko Remigio, Trevon Clark and Makai Polk over the past few weeks.

With a healthy offensive line, the Bears will seek to outscore an Illini offense that sputtered down the stretch and managed just 10 points in each of its final two games — both losses to conference opponents.

The latter of the two defeats — a home loss to Northwestern — was without starting quarterback Brandon Peters, a transfer from Michigan who has put together decent numbers in his first season as the starter.

While his 54.6 completion percentage remains suspect, Peters’ connection with leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe was anything but. In 11 games, Peters found the 6’2” Imatorbhebhe for nine touchdowns and 634 yards, while averaging 19.2 yards per reception.

The number 634 is significant to the Illinois offense for another reason — it’s the total yardage accumulated on the ground by leading rusher Reggie Corbin. The duo of Corbin and redshirt senior tailback Dre Brown is responsible for 1,179 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns heading into Illinois’ first postseason contest since 2014, complementing Peters’ solid year under center.

Weaver and Harding command the headlines heading into Monday’s bout, so both offenses are game planning for one of their biggest challenges of the year. Given that Cal’s bowl appearance last December featured just 17 total points and nine interceptions, expect fireworks when these two meet in the friendly confines of Levi’s Stadium — just maybe not offensive fireworks.

“They play good football, they’re technically sound and they’ve got some dang good players and they play real hard,” Wilcox said. “We all like schemes, as coaches. … But ultimately it’s how the players play and if they do a good job of developing those guys and teaching them what to do.”

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