Cal, with currently has a 5-4 record, could easily be 8-1 or 7-2 this season — if not for the Bears’ two-quarterback situation.
Just look at what happened last night. With about six minutes left on the clock and the team on Washington State’s 12-yard line (after a long drive that started at the Cal 12-yard line), the Bears brought in Brandon McIlwain on 1st and goal for starting quarterback Chase Garbers. McIlwain rolled out to his right and thought he saw an open Patrick Laird in the flat. Nope. The Cougars picked off McIlwain, killing Cal’s momentum. Washington State won, 19-13.
This isn’t the first time the Bears’ decision to play McIlwain has proved costly for this team. Playing the full game against UCLA and Arizona and the second half against Oregon, McIlwain turned the ball over 11 times. After Saturday’s game against the Cougars, he now has eight interceptions on the season — and just two touchdowns.
So why does Cal keep trying to make the McIlwain experiment work?
“Trying to find some explosiveness,” head coach Justin Wilcox said after the loss to Washington State. “We’re trying to give the guys some answers. (McIlwain is) an explosive guy, probably one of the most explosive guys on the offense. … We’re just trying to find some answers for the offense so that we can put more points on the board.”
Yes, McIlwain is dynamic. Or, at least he was earlier this season. He rushed for 74 yards in the team’s win over BYU, 123 yards in Cal’s loss to Oregon and 107 yards when the Bears lost to the Wildcats. But he hasn’t done much — if anything — in Cal’s last four games. Against the Bruins, he threw for 168 yards and two interceptions and no touchdowns. Against Oregon State, he came in just for designed run plays and had four rushes for 27 yards. Against Washington he threw one pass for a loss of two yards and ran it four times for six yards.
He was used better against the Cougars, with Cal’s play-calling allowing McIlwain to actually throw the ball and not just come in the game as a clear runner. He kept the ball himself six times and lost two yards, but, passing, he was three of seven for 52 yards. And then he threw the interception. McIlwain has shown an inclination to press and make some stupid decisions when there’s a lot on the line, and that’s what happened Saturday.
“We can’t throw it to the other team,” Wilcox said. “We run enough quarterback runs with Brandon, and it’s a kind of shot play, and if it’s not there, we have to keep it or throw it out of bounds.”
McIlwain added that he has to “just to to find a way to get that done.”
“I’ve got to make a better decision on that play,” he said. “We were in a position where we had a chance, we had an opportunity, and if I make a little better decision, we still have a chance.”
Look, Garbers isn’t a perfect quarterback. He threw an interception himself on Saturday, although his wasn’t nearly as costly because he forced a fumble on the interception return, and the Bears got a little lucky to get a touchback. He finished the game 15-of-26 for 127 yards with a touchdown and that pick. Even with Garbers in at quarterback, this offense needs some serious help. It doesn’t look all that threatening, and the team hasn’t really been able to get the run game going to set up the pass game.
But messing with the offense’s rhythm by pulling Garbers and putting in McIlwain has got to end. Full stop.
I get that the Bears feel like they have to produce some magic and maybe use smoke and mirrors to move the ball down the field, but bringing in McIlwain has negated a lot of the stellar work the defense has done this season and has cost this team way too much. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin needs to leave him on the sideline.
As Cal enters an absolutely crucial final three-game stretch to end the season, Garbers needs to be the Bears’ quarterback — and no one else.
This article first appeared here.