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2019 Redbox Bowl Game Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini vs California Golden Bears

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Mirror images collide; will they cancel each other?

NCAA Football: California at Stanford Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to MY VERY FIRST BOWL GAME PREVIEW AS AN OTE STAFF WRITER!!!

That’s right, it’s been 1,823 days since the Illinois Fighting Illini last played in a bowl game, but only seven days remain until the Redbox Bowl pits them against the California Golden Bears!

I FINALLY GET TO PREVIEW A BOWL FOR OFF TACKLE EMPIRE!

What’s Their Story?

Cal has been very similar to Illinois, but their season’s narrative has been very different. Each team had a four game winning streak and a four game losing streak. In the case of Cal, they took a different route than Illinois.

They got noticed in Week 2 when they went on the road to knock off then-#14 Washington 20-19, and then defeated North Texas and Ole Miss to start 4-0 and creep as high as #15 in the AP poll.

Then, against Arizona State, star quarterback Chase Garbers left with an injury and the Bears couldn’t close it out. Without Garbers, they couldn’t muster enough offense to complement a solid defense, and embarked on a four-game losing streak that saw a 17-7 loss to Oregon spiral into a 35-0 pasting by Utah. They held Washington State in check but were demolished by USC and stood at 5-5 with two games to go.

Garbers would return against Stanford and win the game with a touchdown run, securing the Axe for the first time in ten years. They closed out the year defeating UCLA to end up at 7-5.

What their overall story was, then, was of a team with a solid defense, especially against the run, but an offense that really struggled to move the ball.

Cal’s Offense vs. Illini Defense

The Golden Bears struggled with injuries across the board all year and ended up with the 100th ranked offense per SP+. They’ll take on Illinois’ 52nd-ranked defense with a decent amount of health as Garbers, leading receiver Nikko Remigio and leading rusher Christopher Brown Jr. will all play.

The Bears generally play out of the shotgun with at least three wideouts, sending a back in motion most of the time to read coverage. They’ll throw early and often but are also content to run zone-read concepts and occasionally line up under center with a single back and pound the rock. Outgoing OC Beau Baldwin was once the head coach of the flamethrowing air raid Eastern Washington Eagles, so that is certainly in his background.

The Bears have committed just 13 turnovers, with only four being fumbles. Their ballhandling will be tested, especially if Jake Hansen plays, but limiting turnovers is a big reason they’ve won seven games despite such a lack of production on offense. Cal will look to attack the safeties in Cover 2, so Illinois will need to generate some pass rush against an offensive line that’s allowed 43 sacks on the year.

Cal has struggled to find big plays on offense, so I predict that the biggest struggle for Illinois will be just keeping drives short. The Illini have proven vulnerable to read option running games this year, and they can’t allow this type of attack to just march down the field 4 yards at a time. If Hansen doesn’t play, Khalan Tolson will have to step up big to contain the edge and Milo Eifler will need to read plays and break them up in the backfield.

Illini Offense vs Cal Defense

Cal runs a 3-4 defense like Wisconsin and their 44th-ranked SP+ defense has been their calling card. Illinois will trot out the 87th ranked offense to try to deal with this. The biggest threat is inside linebacker Evan Weaver, who put up a ridiculous 172 tackles en route to PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll be all over the field and should be very effective at limiting the QB running game.

Brandon Peters is expected to play, and he’ll need Josh Imatorbhebhe to suit up as well. Cal has a couple of good defensive backs in Camryn Bynum and Ashtyn Davis, but Imatorbhebhe has proven he can make catches against anyone downfield if given a chance. Wisconsin bottled up the Illini run game for the most part, but did allow Reggie Corbin to break free for a long touchdown. Dre Brown has been the more consistent runner, but Corbin has the speed and elusiveness to break big runs past the Cal linebackers. He’ll need to see the field better than he has been, however; he’s been very ineffective in Illinois’ last two games as he keeps cutting back away from his blockers trying to find more room.

Illinois should lead the game off pounding the rock with Dre Brown, but if Corbin gets 15 carries and shows the patience he did last year, he’ll take one for at least 40 yards. Peters’ decision making has improved dramatically over the course of the season, but he needs to do what he can to stay in the game because the depth behind him is alarming.

Special Teams

Here’s where the teams are very different. Cal has some of the worst-rated special teams units in the country, with a kicker who’s 11 for 17 on the year and a couple punters averaging under 40 yards per punt. With plodding offenses against functional defenses, this could turn into a field position battle, and that favors the Illini. Between James McCourt’s enormous range and Blake Hayes’ dominant punting game, the Illini have a massive advantage in this department. It’s been six years since Illinois returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. Perhaps this is the game where it happens.

Verdict

This really is a toss-up because Cal for sure has the better defense, but Illinois has a worse offense. I’m leaning Illinois for two reasons:

  • Illinois is well-equipped to win a field position battle, and this game sets up to be one
  • Though neither offense is effective, Illinois has much more big play potential between Imatorbhebhe, Corbin and Donny Navarro. The offenses are both hitting .200, but Illinois has better power numbers.

This ought to be a competitive game, and for seniors such as Dre Brown, Dele Harding, Reggie Corbin, the retiring Ayo Shogbonyo, Stanley Green and others, this is the game they’ve worked for 4 or 5 years to get to, so I expect some fire in this one as well.

Most importantly, this game will be B1G as all hell.