Cal Football: Can Bears Pull Out a Surprise to Spark Offense Against USC?

Could Cal quarterbacks Chase Garbers (7) and Brandon McIlwain get on the field together?Photo by Casey Sapio - USA TODAY Sports

Trojans have beaten Cal 14 times in a row, and Bears need a game-changing play on offense

Would a trick play help? Would putting an athletic defensive player on offense provide a spark? Would switching the position of an offensive player make a sizable difference?

Cal continues to search for explosive plays on offense to complement a defense that consistently keeps the Bears in games. Cal’s offense scored just six points against then-No. 15 Washington and just 13 against eighth-ranked Washington State, yet the Bears won one of those games and had a chance to win the other.

Just one or two big plays could make all the difference.

You may see some different things on Saturday when the Bears play at USC, which has beaten Cal 14 times in a row. Then again you may not. But it’s clear to everyone that Cal is lacking big-play potential on offense – the kind of play that can change the complexion of a game in an instant.

“I wish there was a play we could call or one player,” Bears head coach Justin Wilcox said. “It’s not usually how it works.”

Wilcox did not dismiss the idea of taking a defensive back and using him on offense, and safety Ashtyn Davis, a former Pac-12 hurdling champion who has shown his big-play potential on kickoff returns, and safety Jaylinn Hawkins, an excellent receiver and punt returner in high school, would be the logical choices.

“It’s not out of the question,” Wilcox said.

Putting quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain in the game together might create some intriguing options, given their contrasting skills.

A gadget play could fool a defense and get a quick score if executed effectively.

“Everything is on the table,” Wilcox said.

But there are three things to consider if the Bears are going to think outside the box in an attempt to create a game-changing play on offense.

---1. We won’t know about it until it happens.

The key to a trick play or manipulating personnel is to surprise the defense and catch it out of position.

Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin notes the coaches talk about a lot of possibilities. But . . .

“Anything that’s concrete we probably wouldn’t talk about it anyway,” he said. “You’ll notice it when you see it on the field and the defense probably will too.”

---2. Putting a defensive player on offense can affect other aspects of the team.

“There’s a ripple effect,” Wilcox said.

Using a defensive back on offense could affect that player’s effectiveness on special teams or on defense, and the Bears certainly don’t want to damage a defense -- especially their outstanding secondary -- that is giving them a chance to beat ranked teams.

It’s too late in the season to make anybody a two-way player, so using him in spot situations is the only option. Is it worth it?

---3. There is risk involved.

Cal’s offense gave the Bears a chance to beat Washington and Washington State by minimizing its mistakes and letting its defense try to win the game.

By definition trick plays or the use of players not accustomed to playing offense involves risk. Those schemes are not part of the regular playbook, so they are practiced less and have a chance of blowing up in your face. Cal’s strength is its defense, and the Bears do not want to give it more issues to overcome.

The use of Brandon McIlwain against Washington State was an example. He had a few important completions and offers big-play potential, but the play everyone remembers is the fourth-quarter interception he threw when Cal had a first down at the Cougars’ 12-yard line with 7:34 left in a tie game.

“We’re trying to find sparks within the offense,” Baldwin said. “He’s been one of the more explosive players. If it wasn’t for that last play, the risks would have been worth it.”

The Bears had other constraints against Washington State, such as the absence of wide receivers Kanawai Noa and Jordan Duncan with undisclosed injuries. But Moe Ways, who stepped into a starting role, provides about as much big-play potential as those two.

Duncan is unlikely to play against USC, but Noa might play.

The Bears keep searching for solutions with a roster that lacks big-time playmakers on offense.

Keep watching. You might see something unusual and bold from the Cal offense at some point on Saturday.

Or not.

See what Chase Garbers has to say in a video after Tuesday's practice

Take an early look at USC

No. 1-1

I will say it again. Mcilwain to running back. As far as Davis goes, he is a great athlete, but lacks vision and elusiveness returning kicks. How many has he popped or even taken past the 30 in two years? The only one he took all the way was against Idaho State. I don't see him on offense, but I love the way he plays against the run.