The California Golden Bears (7-5) and TCU Horned Frogs (6-6) enter this bowl game out West with similar records, but with differing outlooks on their 2018 campaigns.
For the Horned Frogs, who were expected to play for another conference championship by many in 2018, this year could be seen as a bit of a disappointment. After starting their non-conference schedule with a respectable 2-1 finish, the Horned Frogs would go on to lose six out of their next eight conference games, including a loss to 3-9 Kansas in Lawrence.
The Horned Frogs clawed their way out of a 4-6 hole to get bowl eligible, though, winning their last two games by seven points a piece. A win for TCU here would represent a positive end to one of the tougher seasons that head coach Gary Patterson’s had in Fort Worth.
Cal, on the other hand, has had one of their best seasons under second-year head coach Justin Wilcox.
After missing a bowl last season, the Bears grabbed historic wins over both Washington and USC. Things are definitely looking up for the Bears, who are looking to continue to build on what Wilcox has established in Berkeley by getting a victory against a winning program like TCU.
Wilcox took over a Cal team that was 19-30 under Sonny Dykes, who had generated productive offenses but moribund defense and got the Bears bowl eligible only once from 2013-2016. A long time defensive coordinator at the FBS level, Wilcox has transformed Cal into more of a team that values elite defense and efficient offense.
Yet the 2018 version of the Cal Golden Bears hasn’t exactly lived up to that model offensively.
The biggest issue facing Cal has been turnovers, where they’ve averaged over two a game this season. Most of those turnovers have come from the quarterback position, where both players who started games this season have thrown a combined 15 picks compared to 16 touchdowns.
The Bears struggle to make big plays when they have the ball, but they do have one or two capable athletes. Redshirt freshman Chase Garbers has 90 rushing attempts on the year, and senior running back Patrick Laird, the team’s primary playmaker, is 65 yards short of a 1,000 yard season.
But there’s a reason Cal managed to go 7-5 and have maybe there best season this decade, and that’s their defense. In particular, Cal’s back seven is full of ballhawks who’ve continued to make plays throughout 2018. Safety Ashtyn Davis has a team-high four interceptions, and the Bears have five different players who managed to notch a pick-six in 2018.
TCU offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie will certainly have plenty to deal with, then, as he prepares to take on a Cal defense that is definitely a Top 15 type of unit.
The Horned Frogs have had their own issues on that side of the ball, especially as it concerns injuries, turnovers, and the loss of dynamic athlete Kavontae Turpin due to off-the-field issues.
The problems for TCU have also had much to do with the quarterback, where true sophomore Shawn Robinson struggled with decision-making and injuries all season behind a retooled offensive line. When both he and his backup went down for the season, the Horned Frogs had to go with third string player Grayson Muehlstein, who is expected to start on Wednesday.
Muehlstein has taken care of the football and managed the offense, but TCU’s primary strategy with “the Mule” behind center has been to find ways to get the ball to their best athlete, receiver Jalen Reagor.
Reagor, a sophomore, has 1,222 yards from scrimmage for the Horned Frogs, which is more than double the yardage of almost any other player on the team. TCU found creative ways to get him the ball in space in their win over Oklahoma State, and they most likely will try to do so against Cal as well.
As below average as TCU has been on offense, the defense was once again one of the best in the nation under Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs allow only 202.6 yards per game through the air, which leads the Big 12.
The best player on this defense for the Horned Frogs is probably senior defensive end Ben Banogu, who had 7.5 sacks this season. The defensive line is probably the strength of the TCU defense, and they can certainly put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Keys To The Game For TCU
Get The Ball To Someone Other Than Reagor – All you have to do is look at the stat sheet to know where TCU is going to try and distribute touches. Cal knows that as well, and they’re going to do everything they can to limit Jalen Reagor. If TCU can find ways to use the sophomore as a decoy in certain situations, they might be able to get the ball to some of their other athletes, who need to step up and shoulder part of the offensive load.
Get Points Off Of Turnovers – If the Horned Frogs are going to be victorious in Phoenix, they’ll need to turn any takeaways they get into points. TCU hasn’t been great at getting turnovers this season, but Cal will more than likely give the ball away at least once in this game. If TCU can not only win the turnover battle, but put points on the board when they get an interception or a fumble recovery, that could be the difference in what should be a low-scoring game.
Limit The Cal Running Game – Defensively, this game will be all about how much the Horned Frogs can keep Cal from having success on the ground. The Bears are slightly better at running the football, and will probably be more prone to turning the ball over if they’re put in uncomfortable offensive situations. Bottling up Patrick Laird will be paramount for TCU in that sense.
This is a very difficult game to predict, mostly because these two almost seem like the exact same team. I fully expect this game to live up to how it’s being billed – as a defensive struggle where neither squad is able to score much more than 20 points, if that.
Expect there to be turnovers in this game, though. Both of these teams have shown a propensity at times to give the football away on offense, and to take it away on defense. The team that is able to best take advantage of turnovers will be the one to ultimately get the win here.
Even though this one is a true toss-up, I will give TCU the edge in being able to protect the football. The Horned Frogs have really been able to clean up their turnovers closer to the end of the season, and TCU probably has the advantage on the headsets. TCU by three points.