Instant analysis/reaction: Bears win after season-best performance

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Brief Summary:

For the first time since the 2015 Armed Forces Bowl, the Bears will end their season on a high note with a postseason victory against the Fighting Illini, 35-20, at the 2019 Redbox Bowl. This win marks head coach Justin Wilcox’s first bowl victory after losing the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl to TCU. Cal quarterback Chase Garbers took home the Outstanding Offensive Player award while Cal defensive tackle Zeandae Johnson received Outstanding Defensive Player honors. 

The Bears scored a season-high 35 points, giving offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, running backs coach Nicholas Edwards and offensive line coach Steve Greatwood a rewarding send off as the trio wraps up their time at Cal.

 

Key Takeaways

Bears’ Bright Future: While it was the final game for many Cal seniors, it was the Bears’ young offensive core that shone brightest Monday afternoon. True freshman Makai Polk had his best game of the season, netting 5 receptions for 105 yards. Sophomore tight ends Gavin Reinwald and Colin Moore caught two touchdown passes, their second and first career touchdown receptions, respectively.

Weaver Watch: Evan Weaver, while falling short of breaking the NCAA record for tackles in a season, broke the equivalent Pac-12 record, ending the game with 9 tackles. The All-American linebacker finishes his Cal career with 407 total tackles.

Cal’s Defense Rights the Ship: After giving up 242 yards to Illinois in the first half, the Bears came out of the break focused and energized, limiting the Illini’s offense to 208 yards and 7 points. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins created the only turnover of the game with an interception, his 9th and final pick dressed in blue and gold.

 

Cal’s game MVP

In Chase Garbers’ young career, he has had a litany of impressive performances. There was his four touchdown performance against Ole Miss that leapfrogged Cal from No. 24 to No.15. There was his game winning touchdown run against Stanford that put the Axe back in Berkeley after a decade of residency in Palo Alto.

But those displays pale in comparison to his play at Levi’s Stadium. The redshirt sophomore had a career-high 187.3 quarterback rating, completing 22 out of 31 passes for 272 yards and a career-high five total touchdowns.

This game was a complete reversal of the Garbers seen at the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, in which he threw three interceptions and was benched in favor of Chase Forrest. Cal was 7-0 this season when Garbers started and finished the game for the Bears, and will certainly be the focal point of the blue and gold’s 2020 offense.

 

Eye opening Stats

The Bears distributed the ball up and down the roster, with nine different receivers catching passes for Cal, four of whom caught touchdown passes.

Illinois ran the ball 22 times for 120 yards in the first half, but were limited to only 45 yards in 16 second half attempts.

The Fighting Illini were penalized 10 times and lost 89 yards as a result.

 

Looking Back

This win closes the book on a Bears’ season that has seen high peaks and low valleys. After starting their 2019-20 campaign with four straight victories (including their highest rank since 2009), Cal lost Garbers to a shoulder injury midway through their matchup against Arizona State and proceeded to lose four consecutive games as a result. Undeterred by a slew of disappointing games, the Bears rebounded, winning four of their final five, including their first bowl game since 2015.

Michael Brust is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.