Perhaps it was his South Carolina Gamecock past that got fans to hop on the train before they even knew where it was headed. Any prospect from the South has allure in Northern California — mythical creatures who hail from the all-too-dominant SEC conference are few and far between in Berkeley.
Then it was his two-sport capability — baseball and football — a skill that evokes memories of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. “The recruiting version of Christmas Eve,” one writer called it.
For its first four games, Cal football stood by its two-quarterback system — accentuated by a run-heavy offense that kept opposing defenses on their toes. While unconventional, the system was working — just enough.
So it goes: Unconventionality is tolerated so long as a team is getting the job done and racking up wins — and it’s called into question when a team is not.
When Brandon McIlwain trotted out for his first career start as a Bear on Saturday against Arizona, it was the moment the people had been waiting for — the unwrapping of the gift that one so desperately waits for on Christmas morning.
Three hours later in Tucson, McIlwain had totaled 315 passing yards and 107 more on the ground. These are wildly impressive stats that mean surprisingly little when one takes a closer look at the box score and sees four turnovers next to McIlwain’s name — a fumble and three interceptions, two of which were pick sixes.
The Bears seemingly outgunned the Wildcats statistically but still wound up on the wrong end of a 24-17 final score. While the low-scoring affair wasn’t a blowout, it wasn’t due to a lack of talent on the field. Cal’s defense orchestrated its play beautifully, doing pretty much all fans could ask of it, and did not surrender a single point after the first quarter.
Cal didn’t lose. Cal beat itself.
“It’s my job to make sure our team is ready to play,” head coach Justin Wilcox said in the postgame press conference.
Entering the midway point of the season, Wilcox hadn’t ensured that an uncontested quarterback could exclusively run Cal’s offense under center. McIlwain is a gifted athlete, but he is young and hasn’t had the opportunity to string together a necessary combination of consistent playing time, building trust with his receivers and starting a handful of games knowing that he’s “the guy.” And from an offensive standpoint, the Arizona matchup was the first time the Bears had implemented a true passing game into their game plan.
Everything is easy to say in hindsight, and far easier to say when the job is not yours, but game five of the season and game two of Pac-12 play was not the time for Cal to establish moving the ball through the air — that’s what preseason is for. UNC, BYU and Idaho State are all teams that Cal could have beaten with one quarterback, but instead it chose to experiment with its offense.
Wilcox stood by the two-man system. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin stood by it. Chase Garbers and McIlwain did, too, as both players alluded to the fact that no matter how the offense was running, at the end of the day, football is football.
Cue the parameters of this week’s game — Cal is now 3-2 overall, 0-2 in conference play and hosts a 0-5 UCLA team Saturday. It’s Wilcox’s job to make sure his team is ready to play, starting with his quarterback(s?).
Despite McIlwain’s turnovers and shaky ball security, he should be Cal’s guy. It’s too little, too late to give Ross Bowers a look, if he is indeed 100 percent ready to go. Garbers could make his debut as a one-man show, but it would likely be a sequel to Arizona. And the reinstatement of the two-man scheme just leads to more confusion.
McIlwain’s guys believe in him, and if they are going to make him the new face of Cal football, leave him in for the rest of the season and ride the McIlwain Train — bumps and all.