Monday’s Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., pits Cal against Illinois in a matchup of some significance for the progress of each program.
The Golden Bears (7-5) reached a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time since making seven straight from 2003 through 2009. After playing in the Cheez-It Bowl in Phoenix a season ago, Cal is just 43 miles from its Berkeley campus in Santa Clara this year.
“Being able to play basically another home game … is going to be a great environment,” linebacker Evan Weaver told reporters following the bowl-game announcement. “Great for the Cal program. Going to back-to-back bowl games to finish out my Cal career is wonderful.”
Weaver, the nation’s leading tackler with 173 on the campaign, leads a stout Golden Bears defense that was integral to a strong regular-season finish.
Cal started the season 4-0, but after losing quarterback Chase Garbers to a shoulder injury midway through the Sept. 27 game against Arizona State, dropped the next four.
The Golden Bears’ defense held three of its final four opponents to 20 points or fewer, including high-powered Washington State. Cal finished 3-1 in the home stretch, sending it into the Redbox Bowl on a different trajectory than Illinois.
The Fighting Illini (6-6) dropped their last two to Iowa and Northwestern, scoring just 10 points in each contest. Still, the 2019 season has been important for the growth of Illinois football under coach Lovie Smith.
This marks the program’s first bowl game in his tenure, and the first in any capacity since 2014. A win on Monday would give Illinois its first above-.500 finish since 2010.
“The goal is to become Big Ten [Conference] champ. Someday, our program will eventually get there. In the meantime, we’ll keep on building,” Smith said at his bowl announcement press conference. “It’s a process. Part of that process was to play better football this 2019 season. I think we’ll all say that we made progress with that.”
Among the milestones in Illinois’ season was an upset of Big Ten West division champion Wisconsin. The Fighting Illini stunned the Rose Bowl-bound Badgers on Oct. 19, 24-23.
Illinois also knocked off Michigan State in a wild 37-34 game on Nov. 9 that secured the Illini’s bowl eligibility. Illinois rallied from down 21 points to open the fourth quarter.
The Illinois offense has been up-and-down throughout 2019. How it stacks up with a Cal defense that ranks No. 33 in the nation, allowing 22.1 points per game, may depend on the health of several players.
Quarterback Brandon Peters and wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe each missed the season-finale loss to Northwestern. Imatorbhebhe caught 33 passes for 634 yards and nine touchdowns on the season as Illinois’ most dangerous deep threat.
Cal will have its own absences to address. The secondary will be without safeties Ashtyn Davis and Trey Turner, while Tevin Paul is down at defensive end. On offense, Cal will be without wide receiver Jordan Duncan.
Beyond injuries, the Redbox Bowl winner may come down to something as simple as fundamental preparation. Both teams are returning to action from a month-long layoff.
“You always have a significant (amount) of time from your last game until the bowl game,” said Cal coach Justin Wilcox following his team’s Dec. 26 practice. “Tackling, ball security, those things always play into performing well in bowl games.”
–Field Level Media