California handles Illinois 35-20 in Redbox Bowl

Senior+runningback+Dre+Brown+attempts+to+maintain+possession+of+the+ball+before+getting+tackled+during+the+Redbox+Bowl+in+Santa+Clara%2C+Calif.+Monday.+California+beat+Illinois+35-20+at+Levi%27s+Stadium%2C+home+of+the+San+Francisco+49ers%2C+in+the+Redbox+Bowl.+Photo+taken+by+Jonathan+Bonaguro.+

Senior runningback Dre Brown attempts to maintain possession of the ball before getting tackled during the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif. Monday. California beat Illinois 35-20 at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, in the Redbox Bowl. Photo taken by Jonathan Bonaguro.

By JJ Kim, Managing Editor for Reporting

The Illinois football team lost to the California Golden Bears by a score of 35-20 in the Redbox Bowl on Monday.

Monday’s game was the Illini’s first time in five years playing in a bowl game, and the Illini faithful were loud and jubilant from the start, but a lack of a consistent pass rush and takeaways prevented the Illini from pulling it out. This was the first game this season that the Illini have not gotten a takeaway.

“Today, we didn’t play well and we have to give Cal a lot of credit for that,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “We pride ourselves on taking the ball away. We can’t rely on the offense to turn it over and that was the case, we didn’t get that done.”

“We just weren’t getting to the ball and being scrappy like we usually are,” junior cornerback Nate Hobbs said. “If we would’ve scored or got at least two takeaways we would’ve changed the impact of the game. I put that on me a lot too, I should’ve made plays that I didn’t make.”

To open up the game, junior linebacker Milo Eifler sacked Cal quarterback Chase Garbers on the first play of the game. The Golden Bears attempted to start out with some tempo however the Illini defense looked well prepared to match their speed.

On Illinois’ first possession of the game, junior quarterback Brandon Peters ripped off a 30-yard run, followed by a run by freshman Isaiah Williams which was fumbled, then picked up by senior guard Richie Petitbon for a first down. The drive was capped off by a 25-yard field goal by junior kicker James McCourt.

The second series for the Illini defense was the exact opposite as Cal’s sophomore running back, Christopher Brown Jr., ripped off a 54-yard run to set up the Bears in the red zone, followed by a pass interference on sophomore safety Jartavious Martin that helped make way for Cal to throw for an easy four-yard touchdown pass.

In an attempt to respond to the 79-yard touchdown drive, the Illini offense kept Peters moving with bootlegs and options to try and slow down the Cal pass rush. The majority of the drive, however, took place on the ground as offensive coordinator Rod Smith looked to get the run game going early. Williams was utilized several times throughout the drive, including catching a screen pass for a decent gain.

Peters also kept several plays alive with his legs, leading the Illini in rushing after the first quarter with 43 yards.

The Illini ended the first quarter, responding with a 15 play, 75-yard drive, capped off by a five-yard touchdown pass from Peters to sophomore Daniel Barker.

At the end of the first, the Illini led Cal in total offense with 139 yards compared to the Golden Bears’ 80.

In the second quarter, the Illinois pass defense seemed porous, allowing 162 yards. Following an overturned call, Cal got the ball on the one-yard line and was able to quarterback sneak it in for a touchdown.

With the Illini down 14-10 early in the second, the game looked as if it was going to be a shootout. On their first drive of the quarter, sophomore receiver Donny Navarro made an acrobatic catch despite defensive pass interference, but the Illini could not convert on third, leaving that catch in vain.

On their next possession, the Illini opted for a higher tempo, preventing Cal from substituting their players while the Illini pounded the ground. However, a string of incompletions forced the Illini to punt in Cal territory.

After a 37-yard punt by junior punter Blake Hayes that pinned Cal back at their own three-yard line, the Illini secondary allowed four straight first-down completions, as the Cal offense drove down the length of the field for a 97-yard scoring drive, finished off by a three-yard touchdown pass to Brown Jr. on fourth down.

The score put Cal up 21-10 with less than thirty seconds remaining in the first half.

The Illini refused to give up there, as Peters launched a 40-yard pass to Barker to put Illinois in the red zone with nine seconds remaining. With a short pass to Navarro, the Illini settled for a field goal to close out the first half, cutting the Golden Bear lead to 21-13.

At the half, Cal led the Illini in total yards with 273 compared to Illinois’ 242. Peters went 9-16 for 122 yards and a touchdown, while also leading the Illini in rushing yards with 43. Barker was the receiving leader tallying 55 yards on three catches and one touchdown.

To kick off the second half, the Illini offense went three and out after Peters was sacked on third down.

The defense’s first possession wasn’t any more promising, as they let Cal drive down the field with relative ease, as Garbers was able to throw his third touchdown pass and fourth overall in the game with a two-yard touchdown pass to Gavin Reinwald.

Hobbs was called for pass interference on the drive and was continually picked on by the Cal offense throughout the game.

“We have rules in certain coverages,” Hobbs said. “And they did a good job studying, breaking those rules. Quarterback had a good game, we just could’ve been better. We should’ve been better, I should’ve been better.”

The offense responded with Peters scrambling outside the pocket and throwing across his body to hit senior Trenard Davis to prevent a three and out. Peters followed the pass up with a 23-yard strike to Navarro. The Illini were ready to go for it on fourth and 10, but their third delay of game penalty of the day forced Hayes to come out for a punt.

The rest of the quarter was pretty much the same, as the Illini defense failed to generate any pressure to make Garbers uncomfortable in the pocket which opened up running lanes for the Cal running game. Offensively, the Illini tallied only 103 yards compared to Cal’s 193 and had half of Cal’s first down totals.

In the final quarter of regulation, the defensive struggles continued as the Illini were called for their fourth defensive pass interference of the game early in the fourth, and to make matters worse, Eifler was ejected on a controversial targeting call, immediately followed by an six-yard touchdown catch by Cal’s Remigio to put the Golden Bears up 35-13.

The 35 points put up is a season-high in points for Cal, who came into the game ranked 115th among FBS teams in scoring offense.

About halfway through the fourth, the offense finally scored their first points of the second half off of a six-yard touchdown run by senior Reggie Corbin.

Peters then threw an interception midway through the fourth, silencing any hopes of an Illini comeback.

“Well what we want our team to do is just play at least 60 minutes,” Smith said. “Finish strong, keep fighting throughout. There’s adversity every game, you have to be able to work through that.”

The Illini continued to fight the very end, finishing the game with 450 yards compared to Cal’s 395, ending the season at 6-7.

“There’s a lot to build on, it’s a process and as we continue to take steps with our program, the bar has been set,” Smith said. “It was a lot of fun going to our first bowl game, we’re looking forward to what the future will bring.”

@JJKimSports

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