Story by Stephen Langsam (Martinez News-Gazette)
Cal Bears get ready to face Illinois in the Red Box Bowl
Bowl season is upon us, and the California Golden Bears (7-5) representing the Pac-12 are going to be playing the Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) representing the Big 10 at 1pm (PST) on Monday, December 30th at Levis Stadium.
The Bears Head Coach Justin Wilcox will be looking to earn his first bowl victory with the Bears as they fell to TCU last year in the Cheez-It Bowl, his first bowl appearance at Cal. The second appearance in a bowl game under Wilcox ties for third all-time in the history of Cal head coaches behind Jeff Tedford, 8 appearances with a 5-3 record, and Pappy Waldof, 3 appearances with an 0-3 record. The Bears behind Wilcox will also be looking to improve its all-time bowl records of 11-11-1, while topping Illinois who is 8-10 all-time. For Illinois head coach Lovie Smith will be in his first bowl game.
The close proximity to home in the Red Box Bowl, makes this feel almost like a home game for the Bears, who will only be traveling 45 miles to play on Monday. While the location is close, it does have lasting implications as this marks the final time several seniors including Burlsworth nominee safety Ashtyn Davis, All-American hopeful defensive lineman Evan Weaver, and other standout seniors including defensive lineman Luc Bequette, defensive back Traveon Beck and place kicker Greg Thomas. For Davis, Weaver and the other seniors this provides another chance to show off their skills for NFL scouts as they look to the NFL Draft to continue their dreams of playing football for a living.
Some highlights to look out for as the Bears aim for an eight-win season …
For Weaver, he looks to add onto his school-record and career-high 173 tackles in the first 12 games of his senior season, breaking Cal’s 34-year-old single-season record of 167 set by Hardy Nickerson in 1985.
“He’s a lot of fun to watch because he plays with a lot of passion. It looks like he’s having fun. I’m not just watching casually, there’s a professional interest, obviously.” -Ron Rivera, Former Carolina Panthers Head Coach
He also ranks third in career tackles nationally among all active FBS players and first among Power 5 schools. He also is only the third FBS player since 2000 to have three career games of 20+ tackles and is the only Pac-12 player since 2000 with multiple career games of 20+ tackles. Weaver is also a national honors candidate who has racked up a slew of recognition as a finalist for the Butkus Award®, Lott IMPACT Trophy and Senior CLASS Award. A nearly unanimous first-team midseason All-American (Associated Press, Athlon Sports, CBS Sports, ESPN, The Athletic and USA Today) and named the midseason’s leading candidate for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors and a first-team All-Pac-12 selection by the Bay Area News Group. He is also a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award and on the watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
“He’s the best linebacker we’ve seen all year. He’s outstanding. Big. Fast. Long. Violent. Physical. Special. He just has to be accounted for, run and pass – and it’s not just accounted for because he’s hard to block. His acceleration from Point A to Point B is as good as you’ll see in college football.” -David Shaw, Stanford Head Coach
For Weaver, this will be his last game in the Bears uniform but not his last collegiate game, as he has accepted an invitation to play in the 2020 Senior Bowl. Weaver is also ranked as the No. 3 linebacker in the nation and the No. 37 player overall by Athlon in their early list of the nation’s top 50 players released in February. Additionally, he is the nation’s second-ranked linebacker and No. 39 player overall in the 2020 NFL Draft class according to CBS Sports, while Mel Kiper Jr. has him as the No. 4 senior inside linebacker.
For Davis, he looks to solidify himself as the top of theof three finalists for the Burlsworth Trophy given annually to the nation’s top player who began his collegiate career as a walk-on. Davis is also looking to add on to his Bears’ records as active career leader in interception return yards, kick returns, kick return yards, kick return touchdowns and all-purpose yards, while ranking tied for first in interceptions returned for a touchdown and second in interceptions. He also earned second-team midseason All-American honors from both Athlon Sports and The Athletic, while he was also a first-team All-Pac-12 selection of the Bay Area News Group and second-team choice of SB Nation. Along with Weaver, this will be his last game for the Bears, but has accepted an invitation to play in the 2020 Senior Bowl.
For Thomas, he looks to pad his stats as the all-time point leader in Cal history. Thomas has made 21-of-30 (70.0%) field goal attempts in his career as well as all 48 of his extra-point tries for a total of 111 points and is Cal’s active career leader in all three categories.
The Red Box Bowl is not sold out and tickets are available at https://www.levisstadium.com/event/2019-redbox-bowl/