Cheez-It Bowl officials tried to make light of the nine pass interceptions that marred their game Wednesday night, unofficially renaming the event, #CheezINTbowl on Twitter.
Cal fans and coaches saw nothing funny about the Bears’ five picks in their 10-7 overtime loss to TCU at Phoenix.
“Just some decision-making and, you know, we got to protect the ball better. It's just obvious,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “I think we all know that.”
Yes we do because we’ve seen this movie before. Quarterback play has been a sore spot all season for the Bears, who made a change at halftime in both their first and last games of the season.
Four different young men played the position for the Bears, but things just never worked out.
Cal’s 20 interceptions this season were eight more than any other Pac-12 team. Washington State, whose 628 pass attempts are 205 more than Cal’s total, has thrown only 10 picks all season.
Redshirt freshman Chase Garbers, who helped the team to a 4-2 record as a starter down the stretch, was 10 for 12 passing to start the night against the Horned Frogs. He scored the Bears’ only touchdown on a 4-yard keeper that held up for a 7-0 halftime lead.
But on his final seven passes of the first half, he was picked off three times, including once in the end zone. In his past six quarters, Garbers has five interceptions.
The Bears made a change at halftime, going with fifth-year senior Chase Forrest, who had not played in a game since November 2017.
“We felt like we needed a little bit of a spark,” Wilcox said. “Chase Forrest had practiced really well in the bowl practices, and we wanted to give him a shot.”
Sadly for the Bears, neither Chase flourished at Chase Field.
Forrest completed his first two attempts and delivered a 33-yard completion to Jordan Duncan later in the third quarter. But he never got the Bears into the end zone and finished 5-for-14 for 71 yards with two interceptions of his own.
There really were no other options. Ross Bowers, the starter all last year, was pulled at halftime of the season opener vs. North Carolina, never got on the field again and announced last week he will transfer.
Brandon McIlwain, who shared the job with Garbers until his propensity for turnovers landed him on the bench, has practiced the past six weeks at running back and receiver.
Wilcox vowed the coaching staff would find answers “starting tonight.”
Interceptions, of course, aren’t the sole responsibility of the player throwing them. Everything and everyone on offense factors in.
But as impressive defensively as Cal was most of the season, its offense repeatedly tripped all over itself. The Bears scored just five offensive touchdowns in late-season games against Washington, Washington State, USC, Stanford and TCU.
They finished the year averaging 20.4 points, by far the worst in the Pac-12.
“We have to improve. There's areas that we obviously have to get better.” Wilcox said. “And there will be a deep dive, and we'll discuss it as a group in January for many, many hours.”
The Bears will reconvene for spring practice, expected to begin in perhaps late February, and all eyes will be on UCLA transfer Devon Modster.
Modster never meshed with new Bruins coach Chip Kelly and sat on the bench all of 2018 before exiting Westwood.
A year ago, in what turned out to be something of an audition, he directed the Bruins to a win over Cal by completing 14 of 18 for 191 yards — and no interceptions — as a replacement for injured star Josh Rosen.
— It’s small consolation, but Wednesday night did not produce the most interceptions in a bowl game by a team with a link to Cal.
In 1982, former Bears coach Mike White was in charge of an Illinois team that was picked off seven times in a Liberty Bowl loss to Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was so delighted by the game that he promptly retired.