This game hurts because every Cal fan screamed aloud that Brandon McIlwain should not have been in the game on the endzone interception he threw on Cal’s potential game-leading drive Saturday night in Pullman.
It hurts because every Cal fan has already heard this narrative in each one of Cal’s losses in the 2018 season. It hurts because we had hoped the Bears developed an offensive identity that would guide them through games like this. Neither was the case as Cal, once again, juggled quarterbacks in a poor offensive performance in the Palouse.
Why is Washington State so good? Great question. Well, Mike Leach is one hell of a football coach. They line up in wide splits on the OL meaning they are better able to push pressure to the outside to prevent potential inside pressure on the quarterback. This, in turn, takes away their ability to run the football unless they line up undermanned against a five man box. Cal understood this and did an excellent job on the back end eliminating big plays. The Cougars have an impressive cast of receivers but nothing came easy against a stellar Cal secondary. Cornerback Camryn Bynum and safety Ashtyn Davis were particularly impressive.
Another reason Washington State is so good is the play of QB Gardner Minshew. He did not make many mistakes in this game and has an impeccable understanding of what Mike Leach expects out of his offense. This young man had his worst statistical performance in a long time, but still executed at a very high level. He goes through his reads like a true professional. He is the easy frontrunner for Pac 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
Cal, defensively, did an excellent job at limiting this elite Washington State offense. ILBs Evan Weaver and Joran Kunaszyck broke the narrative of being “old-school LBs” and did a very nice job tackling talented skill players underneath. Though getting pressure was a challenge again, the Bears did an awesome job of keeping plays underneath them and rallied to the football to force the Cougars to execute on third down and long.
Cal had their breaks throughout this game with nothing more incredibly important than a horrible Chase Garbers interception returned by Washington State to eventually become a Cal touchback. Garbers has infrequently made poor decisions since regaining his starting spot Week 8 at Oregon State, but he made an awful decision throwing the ball directly to Willie Taylor of the Cougars. Garbers, however, did an admirable job of tracking down Taylor and forced a fumble that ended up going through the endzone for a Cal touchback. That was the break that Cal needed and they took advantage to execute on a field goal to tie the game at 13.
The play of the game came on a strong 14-play Cal drive where Cal substituted Brandon McIlwain into the game on 1st & 10 on the Cougars 12. McIlwain extended the play and had Patrick Laird wide-open down the sideline for a potential scoring opportunity. McIlwain poorly overthrew the ball and was intercepted by Cougars Safety Skyler Thomas in the endzone.
One can understand that an aggressive defense like Washington State will give a quarterback like Brandon McIlwain opportunities to throw the football, but his execution as a passer on critical downs makes you deeply question the coaching staff’s decision to play him. We have seen this young man turn the ball over more times than we should have and the staff needs to put an end to the shuffling at the quarterback position.
Garbers was not perfect and threw a terrible interception himself. But it is obvious to Cal fans he gives Cal the best opportunity to make plays as a passer and does a nice job using his impressive running ability when he needs to. The shuffling at the quarterback position has caused unfamiliarity between the quarterback and the wide receivers that was evident throughout the night. Miscommunication between the two position groups is part of what stalled this offense tonight. The bottom line is this Cal offense is not dynamic or efficient enough to give plays away or turn the ball over. Many Cal fans would like to see Garbers have full reign of the offense and put an end to this two-quarterback system in light of the Ross Bowers hand injury.
The Cougars missed the go-ahead field-goal opportunity, but a Cal three-and-out put the ball back in their hands. An impressive drive led by Minshew put six on the board and the Cougars emerged victorious to move to 8-1 on the season.
Overall, this Cal team battled. If you are a Cal fan, you should feel proud of the fight shown by this Cal team even though the offense has suffered through the gauntlet of trying to juggle two quarterbacks following the preseason injury of incumbent starter Ross Bowers. Washington State head coach Mike Leach is the last man to offer phony credit to his opponent but he credited this Cal defense as being as good as anybody in the conference. Cal will have a golden opportunity to take down USC next week and another to take down Stanford the week after. While Cal fans may be disappointed tonight, they must tune in to the next two games because this team is sure to win one of them at least before another winnable home game against Colorado.
It hurts to be a Cal fan tonight. It hurts more because it felt like we were done with this two-quarterback system. The Brandon McIlwain plan must be abandoned no matter what the defense lines up with. The advantages simply do not outweigh the costs of a young man who has turned the ball over at a record-setting rate. One would hope this is the last time this coaching staff has to learn this lesson.