Photos by Tod Fierner – Gerome Wright (Martinez News-Gazette)
SANTA CLARA – Included among the things the Cal football team earned Monday was the right to expect more.
The Bears used an efficient and balanced offense and limited Illinois to a singular second-half touchdown in a 35-20 shellacking of the Fighting Illini in the 2019 Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium. The win gave Cal (8-5) its second eight-win season in the past 10 years and a three-game winning streak to finish the year.
With every offensive starter returning in 2020 and many key players back on defense, the Bears are already thinking where their next steps might take them.
“It’s an exciting time for us,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, who has improved the team’s win total in each of his first three seasons in Berkeley. “We talked in the locker room about the 2020 team. The expectations should continue to rise. There’s no reason why we can’t expect more of ourselves.”
If quarterback Chase Garbers and the rest of the Cal offense continues to perform as it did against Illinois, bigger and better things seem inevitable. Garbers carved up the Fighting Illini defense, completing passes to nine different receivers and throwing a career-high-tying four touchdown passes while rushing for another. He finished 21-of-31 for 272 yards.
Garbers missed four games and parts of others this season because of injury, but the Bears went 7-0 when he played at least half the game. Cal is 12-2 in those games dating back to last year.
“We had a pretty good game plan going into the game,” Garbers said. “We knew there would be a lot of opportunities out there. The receivers did a great job running the right routes and catching the ball. I just had to put the ball where it’s supposed to be.”
Garbers was named the game’s offensive MVP while running back Christopher Brown Jr. rushed for 120 yards and caught a 3-yard touchdown pass.
The teams traded scores throughout the first half but the game turned after halftime. Cal held Illinois to a three-and-out on the first possession of the third quarter, including a strip-sack by defensive MVP Zeandae Johnson. The Fighting Illini recovered, but the Bears took over with excellent field position and scored on a seven-play drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Garbers to tight end Gavin Reinwald to give Cal a 28-13 lead.
The Bears followed up with a 12-play, 88-yard scoring drive, with Garbers finding Nikko Remigio on a 6-yard scoring pass. Cal led 35-13 with 11:06 to play.
“Our offensive staff did a great job putting a game plan together and trying to dial it up,” Wilcox said. “I thought the whole offense in general did a great job.”
It was an especially productive game by the Bears’ tight ends, as Reinwald, Jake Tonges and Collin Moorecombined for five catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Moore’s 4-yard scoring catch in the first quarter was the first touchdown of his career.
All-American linebacker Evan Weaver finished with a game-high nine tackles to give him 182 for the season, the fifth-highest single-season total in NCAA history. While the Bears will miss Weaver and other key defenders such as safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins moving forward, several impact players on the defensive side of the ball return in 2020, including Johnson, nose guard Brett Johnson, linebackers Kuony Deng and Cameron Goode, and defensive backs Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks, among others.
“The stats go with it, but all I’ve really cared about this season is winning as many games as we could,” Weaver said. “We fell short in a few of them, but I’m happy with eight wins. It’s the most I’ve ever had in college. These guys will do a great job piggybacking off of that.”
The Bears open the 2020 season Aug. 29 at UNLV, and the team is well-aware its 2019 performance will result in increased attention from the outset.
“It’s a big, big win for our program for a lot of reasons,” Wilcox said. “We have high expectations for ourselves moving forward. If you’re not trying to win every game, what are you doing here? We can talk about it, but what it takes is a lot of hard work and investment by the people in the program.”