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Cal Football

Penalties and Critical Mistakes Doom Bears in 24-17 Loss in Arizona

October 6, 2018

TUCSON, ARIZONA -The desert hasn't been kind to the Bears in the last decade plus, with some of the program's most disappointing losses coming in Tucson, including Arizona's Hail Mary victory in 2014 and a Rose Bowl crushing come-from-behind win in 2006 that kept the Bears out of Pasadena. This year was no exception, as a pair of Brandon McIlwain pick-6's and a host of inopportune penalties cost the Bears dearly in a 24-17 defeat to Arizona.

"It was really disappointing and unacceptable, starting with me," said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. "It's my job to make sure our team is ready to play and we need to give them opportunities to be at their best. 

"We have to give Arizona credit. They have good coaches and good players and they made the plays they needed to make to win the game and we didn't."

The critical errors are piling up for an often-effective but mistake-prone McIlwain, with three turnovers returned for touchdowns in the last six quarters.

13 penalties, often at critical junctures for a whopping 115 yards combined with the crucial turnovers to doom the Bears to another disappointing defeat.

McIlwain finished the game an impressive 32-for-43 and 315 yards in the air and another 107 rushing yards and two td's on the ground but his critical turnovers are what the game will be remembered for, including a third interception and a lost fumble on the night.

"Turnovers will never be acceptable," said McIlwain. "There's always things we can do to cut down on that and that's on me. I have to make better throws. I have to take care of the ball better, make better decisions and clean it up, but it's never acceptable."

"You can't turn the ball over that many times and expect to win," said Wilcox. "We put ourselves in a hole with penalties. It was just a really poor performance on our part, coaching and playing.

"We gave them two touchdowns and we can't do that. We had turnovers, penalties and self-inflicted wounds. There's going to be a holding call from time to time but we had six procedure penalties. 

"We're going to play in tough environments and it's unacceptable to play like that. We have smart guys so we have to play smarter. We can't make dumb mistakes like that. It was coaching and playing."

The game got off to a rough start for the Bears. Electing to defer and receive the kickoff in the 2nd half, the Bears' defense had a hard time containing Arizona out the gate as the Wildcats drove 75 yards in 11 plays in their opening drive, culminating in a 31-yard Khalil Tate touchdown pass to receiver Tony Ellison over Cal safety Ashtyn Davis to give the Wildcats a quick 7-0 lead five minutes into the game after the Josh Pollack PAT. The quarter ended with the Bears down, 10-0 after a subsequent 45-yard Pollack field goal late in the quarter.

Ultimately, the defense turned it around in a big way, holding Arizona to just three more offensive points the rest of the game, including just 265 yards of total offense but mistakes ruled the day for the Bears.

The Bears struggled to find their rythm much of the half, committing six penalties for 50 yards while struggling to establish the run game. Starting running back Patrick Laird had only 14 yards on five carries by the break. Laird finished with 58 yards on 14 carries for the night.

McIlwain finally gave the Bears a shot in the arm with a lightning-quick 25-yard burst up the middle a minute into the 2nd quarter, drawing Cal to within three.

The Bears were often unable to exploit Arizona's penchant for stacking the box with eight defenders, daring the Bears to pass while thwarting the run much of the first half.

Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin took advantage of the strategy late in the half, emptying the backfield and spreading out the defense with four receivers, giving the speedy McIlwain the room he needed to convert a 3rd-and short situation into another 23-yard td run up the middle with a minute left in the half as the Bears took a 14-10 lead into the locker room. McIlwain was efficient, completing 14-of-18 for 123 yards while leading the Bears rushing game with 84 yards in 11 carries.

The Wildcats retook the lead with 3:19 left in the 3rd quarter, with a tipped McIlwain pass resulting in one of the crazier touchdowns you'll see, as Arizona middle linebacker Colin Schooler grabbed the INT at the 16, returning the ball 39 yards to the Cal 45. Receiver Jeremiah Hawkins stripped the ball straight up in the air, which was promptly scooped up by cornerback Azizi Hearn at the 34 to complete the rare pick-six/scoop and score to give the Wildcats a 17-14 lead.

"That went from a good play to a bad play to a great play," said Schooler. "That was a huge momentum swing and I have to trust my teammates to pick up the slack sometimes."

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Cal QB Brandon McIlwain celebrates the first of his two rushing td's

The Bears tried to bounce right back, driving 72 yards in 5 minutes on the subsequent possession, only to come up short on a 4th-and-one rush by McIlwain, who was stopped just short of the first down marker at the Wildcat 2 three minutes into the 4th quarter.

"We were trying to win the game and we had shot ourselves in the foot offensively in the 2nd half," said Wilcox. "When we got down there, we had the fourth and one play to win the game...When you don't get the fourth down conversion, it's a bad call and I own it 100%.

"We didn't get it but we were trying to win."

A second McIlwain interception by Wildcat DB Christian Young gave Arizona the ball at the Cal 34, but the Cal defense held, with Pollack clanking a 40-yard field goal attempt off the upright with 7:05 remaining, keeping the Bears in the game.

The Bears had an opportunity to retake the lead in the subsequent possession but McIlwain's second pick-6 gave the Wildcats an insurrmounable 24-14 lead with three minutes remaining.

A late Greg Thomas field goal with 14 seconds remaining narrowed the gap to 24-17 but the Bears failed twice to recover the onsides kicks sandwiched around an Arizona penalty and the Wildcats ran out the clock for the win.

Receiver Moe Ways led the Bears with eight catches for 97 yards in his best game as a Bear. Receiver Vic Wharton added four catches for 43 yards and tight end Ian Bunting added four receptions for 36 yards on the night.

Punter Steven Coutts had perhaps his best game as a Bear, as well, averaging 46 yards on four punts, including two fair catches well inside the Wildcat 20.

At 3-2 five games into the season, where do the Bears go from here?

"They ended up winning, so credit to them," said linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, who led the Bears with 11 tackles. "We just have to stay together. 

"We're a family. I love my team. We all love each other and there's no defeat in this thing. We're going to continue to practice hard and we're going to continue getting better. 

"We'll be ready for UCLA."

The loss drops the Bears to 3-2/0-2 in Pac-12 play.

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