We know what Cal’s Evan Weaver and Illinois’ Dele Harding can do. Which other defensive player, Bear or Fighting Illini, do you expect to have a significant impact?
Josh Yuen: I’m pumped for the Illini’s equivalent of Cameron Goode — redshirt junior linebacker Jake Hansen, one of Harding’s complementary backfield busters. In Illinois’ marquee win over Wisconsin, Hansen picked up double digit tackles and a sack, and has an eye-popping seven forced fumbles in 2019. While his 72 tackles on the year pale in comparison to his 95 from 2018, Hansen is the dangerous type of player who sneaks up on the quarterback from the blindside. He presents another layer to an already potent defense.
Emily Ohman: All-American Bears inside linebacker Weaver recently broke a school record which had stood for 34 years, surpassing the mark of 167 tackles in one season with 173 of his own. And his year isn’t even over yet. With 26 more tackles than anyone else in the nation, Weaver is only 21 tackles away from breaking the all-time NCAA FBS record of 193 tackles in one season. Considering he’s had double digit tackles in all but two games this fall, it’s more likely than it might seem. The only person on Weaver’s tail, however, is Illinois’ own Harding, who ranks second in the nation with 147 tackles. Averaging 12.3 tackles per game, the linebacker has totaled 13 sacks and has three interceptions which he’s returned whopping 94 yards this season. Although Weaver averages 14.4 tackles per game, he has only 2.5 sacks and has turned up empty handed in terms of interceptions, so the drawn showdown between these two defensive machines will be one to keep an eye on.
Illini linebacker Milo Eifler, a transfer from Washington who happens to be from Berkeley, could be a sleeping threat. Eifler has tallied 59 total tackles this season and returned a fumble for a touchdown; he will be a name to look out for in his Bay Area homecoming.
Shailin Singh: Cal safety Jaylinn Hawkins makes big plays when they count. Did anyone forget about his ridiculous three interception performance in last year’s Cheez-It Bowl? Or his touchdown-saving snag that helped the Bears win back the Axe against Stanford? With teammate Ashtyn Davis out for the Redbox Bowl, Hawkins will be Cal’s primary weapon against Illinois’ passing attack. The hard-hitter has picked up his game quite a bit over the final portion of the season, and I do not see a reason why he can’t have a repeat performance as the bowl game’s defensive MVP if he can get his hands on a pass or two.
It’s been a whole month since Cal played a game — if you could remind the team of one moment or contest this or last season that it’d be well advised not to repeat, what would it be? How will Cal patch up any last problems before showtime?
JY: What was the message heading into 2019? Take care of the football. Illinois takes the ball away as well as anybody in the Big Ten, with 28 forced turnovers on the year. Cal quarterbacks threw the rock away five times in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, and the message from Illinois’ defense all week was to make the Bears’ offense uncomfortable. The keys to winning on Monday afternoon are what Wilcox has preached every day since he first arrived — explosive plays and winning the turnover margin.
EO: I would point the Bears back to their last game of the regular season against UCLA. Although Cal earned a convincing 28-18 victory against the Bruins, UCLA was able to exploit gaps in the defensive line and a well timed interception to gain its own offensive momentum. The Bruins leaned on both keen passing and their elusive running backs to put points on the board. Illinois is just as balanced — with 2,124 passing yards and 1,709 rushing yards this season, the Illini’s potency lies in their ability to mix it up offensively. If I were Wilcox, I would focus on playing with as much cunning as possible while remembering that playing smart doesn’t equate to playing risky.
SS: The worst possible thing that Cal could do is return to their pattern of Baldwin calling slow-developing run plays that often result in net losses. The Bears need to keep the ball moving upfield. So far this season, that formula has been to let Garbers throw and occasionally mix in runs on short yardage situations, where Christopher Brown Jr. thrives.
What type of game do you expect this to be? A gritty defensive affair like Cal saw against Oregon or an offensive fireworks show like the Washington State game?
JY: Both teams will score in the teens, if that. I don’t anticipate either offense starting off on the right foot, but I do expect special teams to play a big role. Keep an eye out on not just how dominant the defenses are in this one, but also the performances of the place kickers and punters.
EO: Neither Cal nor Illinois are sophisticated offensive contrivances like their SEC counterparts, regardless of how well Garbers has played these last few games. This is not to say that this will be a scoreless showdown by any means, but both the Bears and Illini have a herd of high caliber players on defense. Such a well-matched game will surely make for a defensive deadlock. Cal will need tremendous performances from Hawkins, Goode, Weaver and Kuony Deng to give the team leverage over Illinois and give the offense some wiggle room.
SS: The way Cal’s offense has been clicking lately may foreshadow a breakout game. Garbers has looked fantastic over the past couple games, and he is finally establishing a dangerous chemistry with receiver Nikko Remigio. Pair that with the reported return of Kekoa Crawford, who is arguably Cal’s best receiver, and the Bears suddenly look like they have a viable passing attack, which in turn will give Brown Jr. more room to run. The Illini will encounter one of the toughest defenses they faced all season, and I do not see them scoring more than 20 points. Quarterback Brandon Peters has been mediocre at best, completing just over 50% of his passes. Thus, I see this as a game where Cal takes home the win by a couple of touchdowns.
JY: Illinois 19, Cal 17
EO: 23-20, Cal wins
SS: 28-13, Cal
It’s been a rollercoaster of a season. Summarize Cal football’s 2019 in one word.
JY: Fun! It looks a lot like 2018 on paper, but it looks a whole lot better for Cal fans when you see a W next to the Stanford and UCLA road games. Add on the fact that the Pac-12 North will have plenty of turnover heading into 2020, and you’ve got plenty of reason for me (and my friends who are graduating) to punch in season tickets for our first year as alums.
EO: Impressive. Like Josh said, Cal has a lot to be proud of this season, perhaps most notably the reconnection with fans and alumni whose support had faltered in the face of recent seasons that haven’t met expectations. The Bears defied many expectations this season and have promising impetus rolling into next year, especially offensively. With Garbers growing into his own and many potent weapons on the receiving end, who knows what heights Cal will reach in 2020?
SS: Mystery. I know injuries are a part of football, but there is a nagging “what-if” in regards to Garbers’ injury that forced him to miss half the season. Cal went 6-0 with Garbers playing a full game this season, so who knows what bowl game the Bears would be at this December if the team had better fortune.