Cal established a season high for points in a game while knocking off Illinois 35-20 in the Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Monday afternoon.
Cal quarterback Chase Garbers and running back Christopher Brown Jr. led Cal (8-5) to its first bowl win since 2015, which also was the last time the Bears won eight games.
Illinois (6-7) failed to get its first bowl win since 2011, which was also the last time the Illini had a winning season.
Garbers' performance was in sharp contrast to his showing in last year's bowl. In last season's 10-7 Cheez-It Bowl loss to TCU, Garbers was pulled at halftime after throwing three interceptions. On Monday against Illinois, Garbers had perhaps the best game of his career, completing 22-of-31 passes for 272 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Brown rushed for 120 yards on 20 carries after running for 111 yards in the final regular-season game against UCLA. Those were his two best rushing totals against FBS opponents this season.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters was 22-for-37 for 273 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Cal increased a 21-13 halftime lead to 28-13 with a 56-yard touchdown drive on its first possession of the thrd quarter. Garbers threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Gavin Reinwald to complete the drive.
Cal made it 35-13 early in the fourth quarter on a 5-yard touchdown reception by Nikko Remigio to finish off an 88-yard drive. The drive was aided by 26 yards in penalties against the Fighting Illini.
Illinois closed to within 35-20 on Reggie Corbin's 6-yard touchdown run with 8:01 remaining. But that was as close as the Illini would get.
Garbers was 13-for-16 for 189 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the first half, which ended with Cal holding a 21-13 lead.
Illinois scored the game’s first points on James McCourt’s 25-yard field goal with 10:20 left in the opening quarter. The key plays in the 66-yard drive were a 29-run by Peters and a strange 18-yard gain in which a Peters fumble was gathered in by offensive lineman Richie Petitbone and advanced the final eight yards.
A 54-yard run by Brown was the big play in Cal’s 79-yard touchdown drive that put Cal ahead 7-3 midway through the first quarter. The touchdown came on a 4-yard pass from Garbers to a wide-open Collin Moore. That came one play after a defensive pass interference call on a second-and-14 play from the 19-yard line.
Illinois regained the lead 10-7 on a 15-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6:59 of the clock. The touchdown came with 10 seconds left in the first quarter on a 5-yard pass from Peters to Daniel Barker.
Cal went back ahead 14-10 on an 84-yard drive that ended on Garbers’ 1-yard sneak early in the second quarter. A 37-yard pass to Makai Polk gave the Bears a first down at the 1.
The Bears increased the lead to 21-10 on a 97-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Brown on fourth down with 25 seconds left in the half. Ninety-one of the yards of the drive came on Garbers completions. The critical play was a 25-yard completion to Nikko Remigio on a third-and-10 play from the Cal 3-yard line.
Illinois closed the gap to 21-13 at halftime as a 40-yard completion to Barker with nine seconds left set up McCourt for a 30-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
INJURIES: Cal safety Ashtyn Davis did not play because of an injury, and wide receiver Jordan Duncan and outside linebacker Tevin Paul were out for undisclosed reasons. Wide receiver Kekoa Crawford did play after missing seven games with injuries this season.
CAL 35, ILLINOIS 20
RECORDS: Cal (8-5), Illinois (6-7)
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Cal quarterback Chase Garbers. Garbers was in command of the game throughout, finishing 22-for-31 for 272 yards, four touchdowns and no intercptions.
TURNING POINT: With Cal leading 14-10 in the second quarter, the Bears faced a third-and-10 from their own 3-yard line. Nikko Remigio made a diving catch of a long Garbers pass along the left sideline for a 25-yard gain. Instead of having to punt from its end zone protecting a small lead, Cal had a first down at the 28-yard line. Cal went on in that possession to march 97 yards for a touchdown that gave Cal a 21-10 lead.
STAT OF THE GAME: Cal had zero turnovers against an Illinois team that relies on takeaways. Illinois entered the game first in the nation in defensive touchdowns (6), second in the nation in forced fumbles (18) and third in the nation in turnovers gained (28).
STAT OF THE SEASON: Cal finished with just 13 turnovers for the season, the fewest ever for a Cal team. This comes one year after Cal committed 31 turnovers, the most in the nation.
STAT OF THE GAME II: Illinois was penalized 10 times for 89 yards.
UGLY STAT OF THE GAME: Despite missing several starting receivers bcause of injuries, Illinois amassed 450 yards of offense and outgained the Bears by 55 yards.
WHAT IT MEANS: Cal finished 8-5, its best record since 2015, when the Bears also went 8-5. The 2015 season was also the last time Cal won a bowl game. Cal has not finished better than 8-5 since 2008, when the Bears went 9-4, including a win over Miami in the Emerald Bowl, which eventually became the Redbox Bowl.
WHAT IT MEANS II: Cal won its final three games. The last time the Bears finished with a three-game winning streak was 2008.
CAL’S 2020 BOWL BAROMETER: Cal's chances of reaching a bowl next season increased to about 75 percent. With most of its offensive players returning, the Bears might even challenge for a Pac-12 North title.
NEXT GAME: Cal at UNLV, Saturday, August 29, 2020. Kickoff: TBA. TV: TBA