The 2019 edition of the Redbox Bowl showcased two programs with their season heading in opposite directions.
California, which had won its final two regular season games and finally got all of its healthy offensive players back from injury this month, dominated Illinois for a 35-20 victory. The Golden Bears were able to face an Illini squad coming off two-game losing slide that was still without several offensive pieces unable get off the program’s injury list.
Illinois was without three of its top four wide receivers including Josh Imatorbhebhe, its starting center (Doug Kramer) and its starting cornerback (Tony Adams) couldn’t get its ground game generated or stop the worst passing offense in the Pacific 12 Conference.
California (8-5) moved to 7-0 this season when sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers starts and finishes the football game. Garbers, who missed four games in the middle of the season after injuring his collarbone, easily manipulated an overwhelmed Illinois secondary for 272 yards through the air and five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) to give California its first bowl victory since 2015.
The Golden Bears, which is approximately 45 miles from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, came into this contest ranked 104th of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs through the air but Garbers, who won the Offensive Most Valuable Player award, averaged 8.77 yards per pass attempt in this contest. In his final game as the California offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin (who has accepted the head coaching position at FCS Cal-Poly), found easy throws on one-on-one matchups for the sophomore signal-caller against sophomore safety Sydney Brown. In last season’s 10-7 Cheez-It Bowl loss to TCU, Garbers had 93 yards through the air and three interceptions.
Illinois (6-7), which hasn’t won a bowl game or experienced a season with a winning record since 2011, had its running game stalled by a nationally-recognized Cal defense. The Illini totaled 165 yards on the ground but 68 of them came from pro-style quarterback Brandon Peters. It is the fifth straight game Illinois has suffered through without a 100-yard rusher and only had 45 yards on the ground in the second half.
Peters, who returned to the bowl game after suffering a concussion at Iowa in a loss on Nov. 23, finished his second career bowl start with 341 total yards (273 passing, 68 rushing) and one touchdown. Due to injuries, Illinois dressed only two wide receivers who caught more than two passes this season (Donny Navarro and Casey Washington) and therefore, nine different Illini players caught a pass in this bowl game defeat.
After Illinois took an early 10-7 lead, California dominated the second and third quarters to the tune of 2-to-1 in total yards and 21-3 on the scoreboard to give Bears head coach Justin Wilcox’s program a comfortable lead for his aggressive defensive unit.
To make matters worse for the Illini defense, which came in 38th in FBS against the pass this season, Milo Eifler was ejected for a targeting call in the third quarter of this game for hit toward the neck or head area toward a California tailback on a check-down pass. Eifler, who had several friends and members of his family from nearby Berkeley in the Levi’s Stadium stands Monday, finished his return to the bay area with four tackles and one of the Illini’s three sacks on the day.
For the first time this season, Illinois went the entire 60 minutes of the game without securing a takeaway ending the third-longest streak among FBS programs. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith’s defense lived off the momentum-turning plays of turnovers as they forced 28 turnovers (12 interceptions and 16 fumbles) in 12 regular-season games ranking third in FBS in turnovers gained.
With the loss Monday, Illinois will enter the winter months with its eighth consecutive losing season but will likely have seven returning starters on offense and seven returning starters on defense for the 2020 season.