Just about five hours southeast of Seattle, the Cougar faithful of Washington State University reside in the town of Pullman. While the color purple and the Washington Huskies are loathed in the Palouse, the city is likely home to some Seattle Seahawks fans.
Any Seahawks fan remembers, all too well, perhaps still has nightmares about, Super Bowl XLIX. On the 1-yard line, with potential future Hall of Fame running back Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks elected to pass the ball.
The result: an interception, a 28-24 loss to the New England Patriots and a boat load of four-letter words.
After Cal football’s loss to then-No. 8 Washington State on Saturday, Cal fans felt similar feelings of frustration and confusion about offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin that Seattle fans felt about Carroll.
Now, it is Tuesday and Cal is 5-4, 2-4 in conference play. Baldwin has turned his attention to preparing for Cal’s upcoming opponent, USC, though the loss undoubtedly still stings. He does not have time to dwell in hindsight — he has bigger problems, knowing that Cal has scored just one offensive touchdown in the past two games.
But I know fans (whose qualifications include junior varsity experience or five snaps on Thanksgiving morning before they strain their hamstrings) have time to dwell — just as classic Monday morning quarterbacks do.
Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret — Baldwin and I have a few things in common.
Just about a month ago, I wrote my game week column following Cal’s loss to Arizona. Predicated on my assumption that Brandon McIlwain would assume the starting job for Cal in the coming games and that the Bears’ staff had unrelenting belief in the dual-threat quarterback’s skills, I proposed fans should hop aboard the McIlwain Train.
Baldwin and I both believe(d) in McIlwain, and as a result, we both have people calling for our heads because of it. The flames on the pitchforks of angry fans are particularly intense in the aftermath of McIlwain’s costly interception against the Cougars last Saturday, in what could have been an upset win for the Bears.
I wasn’t completely off — Cal has proven that (perhaps without convincing reason) that it believes in McIlwain. Since losing his starting job, he has still made appearances week-in and week-out as the No. 2 man behind redshirt freshman Chase Garbers.
Where I was wrong, however, was advocating for the ideal that Cal should believe in the turnover-heavy McIlwain.
Most recently, McIlwain owned the helm as Cal football dared to put Washington State on upset alert. The game tied, 13-13, with 7 minutes, 34 seconds left to play in the fourth quarter, the Bears were poised to take the lead deep in Cougar territory when McIlwain threw his eighth interception of the year.
Cal fans were sickened, and I was sickened, too, but I wasn’t necessarily surprised.
I can’t tell you what Baldwin saw on that drive that led him to the specific play call. There didn’t seem to be a justifiable reason to pull Garbers all game, aside from a mistake, which he ultimately redeemed himself for. What has often been the supporting case for McIlwain is that his ability to run creates confusion on the defense, but Garbers was the leading rusher for Cal and he was doing well scrambling outside of the pocket.
Without that interception, maybe Cal would have won. Maybe Cal wouldn’t. Regardless, there is no going back. The Bears have no choice but to look ahead as they are still vying for a bid to a bowl game, and if they want to topple USC, Stanford or Colorado, the offense simply can’t score a single touchdown every other game.
It will be interesting to see if Baldwin is still aboard the McIlwain Train come Saturday and the remainder of the season. For 2018, fans seem to have hopped off the metaphorical locomotive — or maybe they never even boarded it.
Despite my calling for McIlwain a month ago, Garbers has proven his capability of being the standalone gunslinger for Cal.
McIlwain will continue to work and improve his game and eventually get fans back on the McIlwain Train — because unlike Monday morning quarterbacks, McIlwain actually is one.