When you play well, you don’t just feel good — you look good. And, as it turns out, all-white threads were a fashionable choice for Cal football on Monday afternoon.
Sporting an all-white look to close out the decade, the Bears ended their 2019 season on fire, playing their most complete game on both sides of the ball en route to their eighth and final win of the year.
Behind another stellar performance from quarterback Chase Garbers, the Bears took advantage of a de facto home game in the friendly confines of Levi’s Stadium, firing on all cylinders to the tune of a 35-20 win over Illinois in the 2019 Redbox Bowl.
Twelve months ago, Garbers looked as vulnerable as any Power Five signal-caller, throwing three interceptions in just the first half of the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl. A year later, he accounted for all five of Cal’s touchdowns and didn’t commit a single turnover, posting 272 yards and four scores through the air.
Moments after it all ended, he stood before a small crowd of Bay Area media professionals in the bowels of Levi’s as the bowl game’s offensive outstanding player.
“(This win) means a lot,” Garbers said. “For myself, it’s just momentum carrying into the 2020 season and … for the whole team.”
After their opening drive stalled, the Bears treated their fans to an offensive clinic, compiling three scoring drives of at least 79 yards in the opening half, the first of which came on a play-action roll out from Garbers to tight end Collin Moore.
The four-yard score — a career first for Moore — set the game’s tone after the Illinois offense drove 64 yards downfield, punched the Cal defense in the mouth and grabbed an early 3-0 edge on a chip shot for kicker James McCourt. The Illini, who struggled to just 10 points in each of its final two games of the regular season, matched that total before the end of the first quarter.
With leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe sidelined, quarterback Brandon Peters was forced to get creative, using his legs all afternoon to extend plays for his team. A four-yard touchdown toss to tight end Daniel Barker, which gave the Illini a 10-7 lead, signaled a potential shootout was looming.
But while Cal’s offense was off and running, Peters and a trio of Illinois tailbacks found trouble against the likes of the Bear defense the rest of the afternoon, which included rare starts for safety Daniel Scott and cornerback Chigozie Anusiem.
As star linebacker Evan Weaver clinched a Pac-12 record 182 total tackles for the year, the Cal secondary kept Peters in check, limiting any sort of downfield action that defined the season-long Peters-Imatorbhebhe connection.
With Weaver setting records to close out his historic run with the program, a freshman on the other side of the ball continued to make a name for himself. Receiver Makai Polk, seldom used throughout the first eight games of the season, rose quickly into Garbers’ favorite target on Monday, earning eight targets for five catches and 105 yards, including a 38-yard grab which set up Garbers’ one-yard rushing score in the second quarter.
As the first half clock wound down, Wilcox rolled the dice by going for it on a fourth and goal from the three-yard line, a potentially game-changing call with the Illini set to receive the second half kickoff.
The gamble paid off, with Garbers hitting tailback Christopher Brown Jr. to give him the third of his five scores on a season-defining afternoon for both young stars. When it was all said and done, the Bears set a season-high in points, sent their seniors out on top and delivered a third straight victory to the local fanbase.
“He did a heck of a job,” said head coach Justin Wilcox on Garbers’ play. “The o-line, Chris Brown, the receiver making contested catches, we talk about that a lot. Guys made contested catches today. I thought our offensive staff did a heck of a job putting a game plan together and trying to dial some things up. It took everybody, but Chase played a really good game, no doubt.”
Brown, a redshirt sophomore, ends the year with 12 scores to his name, while Garbers remained undefeated this season when he starts and finishes a game.
On a day which saw Weaver, Jaylinn Hawkins — who added one more interception to his collegiate totals — and the rest of Cal’s seniors suit up one final time, it was a handful of future stalwarts that brought home a decisive eighth win. With Wilcox improving the program in each of his first three years as head coach, there’s reason to believe that the 2019 Redbox Bowl was the first step to a golden 2020.
“This team’s future is very bright,” said defensive end Zeandae Johnson, who received the outstanding defensive player’s award. “We’ve got all 11 offensive (guys) coming back — on defense, we’ve got a lot of young guys that played so we’ve got a lot of guys with experience. I’ll be excited to come back and help lead this team to hopefully the Rose Bowl and even more after that.”