This was the most frustrating loss in the Justin Wilcox era and it’s not even close. This loss really makes you wonder about Cal’s game plan and player development on the offensive side of the ball as Arizona’s subpar defense outscored its own offense in a 24–17 victory over the Cal Bears.
Cal got the pleasure of playing an Arizona offense without the luxury of a healthy Khalil Tate. I have watched Tate in every game this year and he has not been his 2017-self since injuring his ankle Week 2 at Houston. Cal did a nice job capitalizing on this defensively and really locked down an Arizona offense that has some big time playmakers—guys like RB J.J. Taylor and WRs Shun Brown, Tony Ellison, and Shawn Poindexter are experienced talents. Cal did a nice job defensively not letting these guys beat them while receiving help from Tate’s hampered running ability. The college football media simply needs to understand that Khalil Tate has a lower-body injury (ankle+calf) because I am sick of hearing announcers and other media talents blast him for not running enough. Anyone who has seen him in earnest would understand that he wants to run but is playing through a significant injury. I applaud him for his effort.
Offensively is where the issues are. It was bad. That does not even describe it; it was something I do not want to rewatch. I have rewatched every Cal football snap since 2014 and I do not even want to look at this one again. Cal’s offensive line was repeatedly flagged for all sorts of penalties from false start to holding. While I did hear an interesting comment from Fox Sports Commentator Petros Papadakis about what Arizona’s illegal efforts to throw off Cal’s snap count, there is no excuse for the poor play up-front against a Wildcats defensive front that has not looked convincing at all this season.
Now let’s talk about that QB position. Brandon McIlwain was given the start and Cal rode with him for the entirety of the game. He can run…. And he can pass a bit…. But no he is not a passer. McIlwain played a poised, composed first half and led Cal into the tunnel with a lead behind some very nice passes. In the second half, however, we saw his undoing as a passer with some costly poor throws into coverage.
McIlwain had a strong first half and Cal entered halftime with a 14–10 lead. As I mentioned, the Wildcats frequently stacked the box, putting their secondary in one-on-one coverage against Cal’s receivers. McIlwain did a nice job making them pay with several critical completions despite Cal frequently working behind the chains. He threw some nice balls in obvious passing downs and his dynamic running ability was on display with a pair of rushing touchdowns.
A few nice throws got Cal into Arizona territory until a McIlwain overthrow to Kanwai Noa into tight coverage was intercepted by Wildcats’ star LB Colin Schooler. Schooler had some room to return, but Cal WR Jeremiah Hawkins made a phenomenal play to punch the ball out of his grip. The ball went about ten yards down the field, but a fortuitous Arizona bounce put the ball right in the hands of Azizi Hearn and he took it the distance to put the Wildcats up 17–14.
Cal responded with a strong, balanced drive. After a third-down completion to Moe Ways, Cal had it 4th and 1 at the Wildcat 3-yard line; Wilcox and company elected to go for it. It was a draw play for McIlwain and though there was a crease along the right side, our QB’s stutter step in the backfield allowed the Wildcats to close the gap and McIlwain was stopped short. Ultimately, it was another let down by a Cal OL that had its worst performance of the season. A lack of communication, a barrage of penalties, and a number of missed blocks put Cal frequently behind the chains forcing big throws by Cal’s inexperienced run-first quarterback.
The Wildcats moved the ball down the field with hopes of adding to their lead but once again this stout Cal defense stood tall as DE Luc Bequette forced a fumble recovered by safety Ashtyn Davis to give Cal the ball back.
The Bears failed to take advantage of the defense’s success as McIlwain threw a poor ball into tight coverage that was intercepted by Scottie Young Jr. returned into Cal territory.
Yet again, Cal’s defense made more plays and forced a 40-yard field goal that was missed by Josh Pollack. Cal looked to tie or take the lead as they worked down the field behind a few more nice throws by McIlwain. Protection broke down once again and it was JB Brown flying through to sack McIlwain, forcing a costly fumble recovered by Arizona.
The Wildcat’s offense repeatedly failed to do anything in the second half and punted it back to Cal. It was do-or-die time for the Bears and another grossly-thrown ball by McIlwain into coverage was intercepted again by Young and returned 24 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
Cal managed to race down the field against Arizona’s conservative late-game defense to kick a field goal and set up an onside kick opportunity. Cal failed to convert with Arizona WR Shawn Poindexter effectively sealing the game.
There is not much to be happy about. Cal’s offense turned the ball over four times in the second half and lost a very winnable football game. Arizona’s defense outscored its own offense and lived on Cal turnovers. There were so many times in this game that McIlwain looked like the guy who should be given the keys to this Cal offense. Despite inconsistent OL play, McIlwain frequently made lemonade and made a lot of nice throws against an Arizona defense that wanted to neutralize his running ability. The clock struck midnight on his ability as a passer, however, and some poorly-thrown balls (that should never have been thrown in the first place) undid Cal’s efforts. Cal’s defense once again played a stellar game. These guys are so mature on this side of the ball and executed the game plan to perfection. They were tough up front, the LBs took advantage of Tate’s hampered running ability, and the Cal defensive backs did not let the Wildcats’ skill players beat them with their speed. This loss is on the offense. This is not a great Arizona defensive front, but they made a lot of plays in the trenches to throw Cal’s run-first offense out of rhythm and put McIlwain in obvious passing situations. It was a smart game plan and McIlwain continues to be a turnover machine.
This felt an awful lot like the Oregon game, but there is no Justin Herbert to hang your hat on. Arizona’s offense was extremely limited and did not do much to seal a victory over the Bears. Cal made its own bed in this game and spotted Arizona 14 points on two giveaway touchdowns. McIlwain played a strong first half, but I am disappointed in the way the coaching staff managed their inexperienced quarterback. There is no excuse for turning the ball over four times in the second half after entering with a 14–10 lead. I have no idea what direction Wilcox and Baldwin are headed in this regard, but there are a lot of Cal fans chomping at the bit to see the 2017 starter Ross Bowers return to action. McIlwain made some really nice plays tonight, but it is obvious he is behind the learning curve as a passer and he becomes more vulnerable the more downfield throws he tries to make.