By Morris Phillips
SAN FRANCISCO–Last year the Cal Bears played awful and were the brunt of jokes. This year, they seem to have the hang of this bowl season thing. Team captain Jake Curhan showed as much, by setting ground rules for the Redbox Bowl press conference at the outset.
“Before we begin real quick: Nikko, Cam and I are really excited to join our teammates on Alcatraz, so respectfully we’re going to be pretty efficient with our answers, and we would appreciate the same from you guys. Thanks.”
A year ago in Phoenix at the Cheez-It Bowl, the Bears were one-half of a turnover fest, throwing five interceptions in a 10-7 overtime loss to TCU that left the Chase Field crowd and the television audience shaking their collective heads. The Horned Frogs kicked in four interceptions of their own in a game that no one wanted to win–in regulation–leaving the decision to an overtime period that brought out social media trolls in droves.
This bowl season, the Bears are in their backyard, playing good football coming in, and looking healthy for Monday’s kickoff at Levi’s Stadium against Big Ten opponent Illinois. A matchup of Cal’s vaunted defense against a team that lost it last two while scoring just 10 points in each game seems favorable.
Coach Justin Wilcox knows turnovers can’t litter the landscape at Levi’s. Illinois (6-6) thrives on them, using seven turnovers to upset Wisconsin and win at Michigan State in their two marquee wins.
“You go into a game playing with great ball security. So we want to play with really, good habits,” Wilcox said. “Possessions will be a premium in this game.”
Wilcox lifted Garbers after throwing his third interception against TCU. That put the ball in Chase Forrest’s hands, and he threw two more picks, including the most damaging one in overtime. Forrest was thrust into the fire, seeing his first, significant time in his five-year Berkeley career. This season, Garbers is in control, throwing just three picks in 184 pass attempts. More importantly, Garbers has rounded into a winner, posting a 6-0 record this year and 12-2 in his career when he starts and finishes the game.
Besides a healthy Garbers, the Bears (7-5) have regained their health and depth on the offensive line, and they figure to cover for their one significant, personnel omission, injured safety Ashtyn Davis, by utilizing their secondary depth, the team’s most impressive unit.
Wilcox said Elijah Hicks will see time at safety against Illinois, with the possibility that corner Cameron Bynum will also see time there as well.
Illinois received good news on the injury front when quarterback Brandon Peters was cleared for action after suffering a concussion against Iowa, which forced the Michigan transfer to miss the Illini’s season-ending loss to Northwestern. Of course, Peters will have his hands full dealing with Cal’s All-American linebacker Evan Weaver and fellow linebacker Cameron Goode, who is coming off two of the most impressive outings of his Cal career.
“His body’s changed, as you probably noticed he gained 25-30 pounds. I think that helped him to be to sustain the season and be able to withstand the rigors of a full season. He’s worked hard at that. And I still think Cam’s best football is front of him. He’s a talented kid,” Wilcox said of Goode.