Does Cal have an offensive identity, and does that even matter?
Look around the Pac-12 North and you can place a short label on the offenses of the contenders. Stanford’s attack is centered on the running back, which this season is Bryce Love. Washington State throws the ball so well and so often it can win a game while getting zero – that’s right zero – rushing yards, like it did against Utah. Washington hangs its hat on balance, and Oregon may not need an identity with a quarterback as good as Justin Herbert.
Cal? Well, the Bears ran the ball better against Oregon than they have all season, but it is difficult to label a Cal offense that has two quarterbacks sharing the snaps. Both Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain are athletic, but the Bears are more of a running team when McIlwain is taking the snaps.
An identity? Who cares? It doesn’t matter. Labeling an offense as being this or that is merely a way for sports writers or TV commentators to talk about a team and sound informed.
“I’ve never been one to put a label on anything,” said Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.
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Cal’s offense is evolving before our eyes. We may not have a firm grasp on what Cal can or cannot do offensively for several more weeks. The quarterback situation is still sorting itself out, and it may be next season before we can identify the Bears’ long-term quarterback.
For now, we’re just of putting pieces together in our mind to form an idea of what Cal can do when it has the ball.
“It’s obviously multiple,” Baldwin said of this year’s Cal attack, “and I definitely think you’re seeing the athletic quarterback piece play.”
The presence of McIlwain, whose 123 rushing yards against Oregon made him the first Cal quarterback to run for over 100 yards since Joe Kapp did it in 1958, makes the Bears’ offense difficult to describe.
“I think our offense is multiple,” McIlwain said. “There may not be a way to describe it.”
Baldwin says he shuffles his two quarterbacks in and out of the game completely on feel. If one is hot or is more effective against a given defensive scheme he stays in.
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Garbers has made three straight starts, but Baldwin and head coach Justin Wilcox don’t dismiss the possibility that McIlwain will start a game, perhaps even Saturday night at Arizona.
Furthermore, running back Patrick Laird is starting to look like the back he was last year, gaining 92 yards on 18 carries against Oregon.
“Pat took another step toward not thinking,” Baldwin said.
It’s an odd compliment, but apt nonetheless. Laird spent less time analyzing the situation after he got the ball and just powered ahead.
Against Oregon the Bears’ identity was as a running team as Garbers and McIlwain combined to churn out 147 yards on the ground but threw four interceptions.
Against Arizona it could be something completely different. We don’t even know how much Garbers or McIlwain will play, and maybe that will be an advantage when Cal tries to end its 13-game Pac-12 road losing streak in Tucson.