Cal will face TCU in the 2018 Cheez It Bowl.
I've gone through every TCU game this season, watched their ups and downs, and I'm here to break it all down for you. I took highlight clips from their season, although I had TCU's projected depth chart in mind at the time the Cal-TCU matchup was announced: for example, I didn't take QB Shawn Robinson clips (injured for the season, but has since announced a transfer to Missouri), but I did take some QB Michael Collins clips. Also, GIFs from imgur are limited to 14-15 seconds so you can also find my entire album of full-sized (.gifv/.mp4) GIFs here: https://imgur.com/a/NYHE3Xa
Let's start with some background that I learned through the always informative TV broadcasts featuring announcers who are not at all dumb and pointless.
I took the following clip because it contained 3 essential things I learned from the announcers in a 15 second span:
First, they have the Guinness World Record for the "World's Largest Belt Buckle." (Is it still a belt buckle if you can't actually wear it?). Then, boom, here's some cheerleaders. Lastly, I'm guessing TCU fans really like throwing knuckleballs in baseball, because they make that hand gesture a lot. I suppose it's to emulate a horned frog, and I guess making the hand gesture is easier than zooming in on an acne-riddled student's face every game.
While Cal fans invented the card stunt, TCU responded by lazily making a gigantic banner, whose message I've yet to decipher.
TCU allegedly picked their mascot after a group of "horny toads" (teehee) showed up at a football practice, so I guess "Riff Ram Bah Zoo" (?) is to celebrate the time their coach stubbed his toe on the coffee table, and has since become an iconic chant of TCU fans everywhere.
Here's TCU fans celebrating a touchdown. I'm not sure if the creepy stare while dancing is officially a part of the celebration.
Lastly, here's the fan that obviously jinxed TCU in their matchup against Texas Tech, as she mistakenly wore her "Beat Baylor" shirt instead of her much more appropriate "Beat Texas Tech" shirt.
Here's hoping she doesn't have a "Beat Cal" shirt, because they did indeed Beat Baylor weeks later.
Anyway, let's move on to football.
The obvious place to start with this offense, especially given their most recent games, is wide receiver Jalen Reagor (which is exactly why I'll start by explaining their quarterback situation instead). Like Cal, TCU also went through a three quarterback carousel. TCU's starting quarterback for the year was dual-threat QB Shawn Robinson, who has since transferred to Mizzou after a season-ending injury. Robinson reminded me a lot of Brandon McIlwain, as he was obviously the most talented quarterback on the roster, but his constant second-half turnovers resulted in TCU blowing leads in a number of games. TCU had small 3rd quarter leads over Ohio State, Texas, Iowa State, and Texas Tech, and TCU would go on to lose all of these games due to Shawn Robinson turnovers (interceptions and fumbles).
Next up on the depth chart was Penn transfer (constantly referred to as the "Ivy League transfer" by announcers) Michael Collins. Collins was originally listed as "questionable" for the Cal matchup, but he has since been downgraded to "doubtful." Collins is also a dual-threat QB, and while he's not as fast and elusive as Robinson, he is a more powerful runner.
He's also a decent downfield passer.
I'm not going to focus too much on Collins as he's not likely to play, but he was a serviceable quarterback for TCU, and his best game came in a 27-26 loss to Kansas (who should be noted is basically the Oregon State of the Big 12), when he posted 351 yards on 23/33 completions for 1 TD/1 INT. This was Michael Collins first start, and Kansas definitely wasn't prepared for Collins to run, as he was also able to add 2 rushing TDs that game. It should also be noted that costly turnovers for TCU were again the deciding factor in this game, as Collins hit a linebacker (Keith Loneker Jr.) 2 yards away right in the chest with the ball as a timing route was likely thrown off, and that ball was returned to the TCU 13, and later RB Darius Anderson fumbled in the redzone on what should have been the game-winning drive. Costly turnovers are a theme of TCU's offensive struggles, and they remind me of a certain Cal player throwing an interception in the endzone when Cal could have taken the lead late in the 4th quarter against Washington State, or perhaps a couple pick-6s against a vastly inferior team like Arizona in a game that was decided by a touchdown, etc. However, Collins was a much safer passer than Robinson, and hence his closest Cal analogue is Chase Garbers.
Collins was injured in their game against Baylor, on what looked a bit like a dirty play to me, as Baylor DT Bravvion Roy "fell" into Collins' leg after he had already gotten rid of the ball and the offensive linemen had stopped blocking him (believing the play was over). Apparently TCU and Baylor had a big sideline brawl in 2017 on a late TCU hit out of bounds, so it's not surprising that these two teams played so chippy, but I definitely was firmly anti-Baylor after that play. Well, I was firmly anti-Baylor ever since Baylor coach Art Briles and Baylor University president Ken Starr (as in the Starr Report, of Clinton impeachment fame) covered up a bunch of rapes committed by their players, but that's neither here nor there.
Anyway, then 5th year senior Grayson Muehlstein took over. His Cal analogue has the most obvious comparison: there are only two QBs in the Power 5 conferences who have spent all 5 years on scholarship with the same team without ever transferring: Grayson Muehlstein and Chase Forrest (and I really hope Cal will give consummate team player Forrest at least one snap in the bowl game, perhaps the very first snap so that he can finally officially be a Cal starting QB). The biggest thing I noticed about Muehlstein is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, he has better chemistry with some of the backups on the offense, and so he and Jalen Reagor haven't always been on the same page.
However, Muehlstein has shown he can put a nice touch on the ball. Here he is with nice timing on the out route thrown to WR Taye Barber:
He was also wise enough to make the decision to run against a light box when Baylor dropped into pass coverage on 3rd down:
However, this is not always the case. Here's an example when tucking and running it yourself wasn't the best read:
Muehlstein will occasionally take shots down the field, and while he has occasionally overthrown the deep ball (maybe intentionally, when throwing into double coverage), he has been able to hit TCU's most reliable receiver downfield:
You notice anything about the wide receivers featured in all these quarterback clips? Almost every offensive highlight for TCU includes wide receiver Jalen Reagor. Let's talk about him.
Early on in the season, TCU had two reliable wide receivers: Jalen Reagor and speedy return specialist KaVontae Turpin. TCU lost Turpin for the season due to, uh, domestic violence, but credit to coach Gary Patterson for dismissing Turpin after his second assault (as Turpin apparently didn't tell coaches about the first one, and TCU didn't bother to check after an earlier Turpin arrest). The loss of Turpin was a big blow to special teams, but it has also made their passing offense revolve entirely around Jalen Reagor.
And why shouldn't it? Look at these clips. One of his TD runs didn't even fit in my 15 second GIF window.
Here he completely loses the cornerback, and then still manages to make a catch on a poor throw by QB Shawn Robinson.
They tried this play earlier in the game and it failed, but they had a second such play that also featured a reverse to Reagor. They've clearly been drawing plays for him.
TCU's starting two running backs have been struggling with injuries, so what do they do? Line Reagor up at RB:
It should be noted that in their previous game, against Oklahoma State, the game plan revolved entirely around Jalen Reagor. He took multiple snaps from the wildcat, he handed the ball of the the RB, he made zone reads and ran it himself, he pitched it back to a WR on the end around, and he was basically the only target Muehlstein could find. There was a touchdown pass to WR Derius Davis, sure, but that was only because a busted coverage by OSU (S Malcolm Rodriguez and S Jarrick Bernard) left Davis without a defender within 10 yards of him. Otherwise, that ball was going to Reagor. The only thing I haven't seen Reagor do is throw the ball himself (they're already on their 3rd string QB, who knows what they'd really do if Muehlstein goes down... kidding, hopefully).
This reminds me a lot of Colorado's offense, that they built entirely around Laviska Shenault (who you can read about here, TCU fans, in my previous article). Of course, Cal did a pretty good job shutting down Laviska Shenault, and so I am reasonably hopeful that Cal can stop Reagor too. Cal has always done pretty well against teams with just one main offensive weapon. And personally, I do think Laviska Shenault was a better player than Jalen Reagor, if it's a comfort to Cal fans. (That's not a knock on Reagor at all, TCU fans, I'm just stating that Shenault is really, really good).
Because the TCU roster does technically include other receivers, I'll briefly mention them here. Muehlstein's other top targets have been WR Taye Barber and Jaelan Austin. While I have been thoroughly unimpressed with Jaelan Austin (dropped balls, sloppy routes, and his catches usually come on improvisations when the QB is scrambling away from pressure), Taye Barber has been coming on strong late in the season. If Cal shuts down Reagor, expect to see a lot more of Taye Barber.
Man, what happened to the TCU run game? They had a much more balanced rushing attack when they had Shawn Robinson at the helm (and Robinson or his RB were both likely to run it), but with slightly less mobile quarterbacks, they've basically given up running the ball. Their starting RB Darius Anderson was supposed to be good, but he had a thoroughly underwhelming year running the ball, and most of his yards came when he was using an offensive lineman as a shield. Darius Anderson is listed as out with an injury for the Cal game anyway. Much more impressive was RB Sewo Olonilua, who reminded me a lot of Vic Enwere-- a big power running back who could create his own yards. I actually didn't take any Olonilua highlights during the course of watching their games, and perhaps that's the point: he was just really good at reliably picking up chunks of yards, even if he didn't have break away speed. Olonilua himself has been struggling the past few games with a leg injury, although I expect we'll see a lot more of him in the bowl game, now that he's had some time to recover. You can tell that TCU thinks their third string running back, Emari Demercado, is an explosive player by their play calling, but Demercado has yet to make an impact, or I'd have included an explosive highlight play here. He's often been tackled for a loss in the backfield on play calls that seemed to have assumed he'd beat a defender one-on-one, etc., but he's yet to do so. But TCU apparently believes in him, so I thought it was worth mentioning.
Defense is TCU's real bread and butter, and I have almost as many defensive highlights as I do offensive ones. The strength of this defense is, hands-down, the defensive line. Everything that TCU is able to do on defense starts with the defensive line. When you're constantly facing the high-flying passing attacks of the Big 12, being able to generate pressure with just a few defensive linemen and drop more players back into coverage is a huge advantage.
TCU has a pair of NFL prospects in their defensive ends in Ben Banogu and LJ Collier (especially Banogu). They had an NFL prospect defensive tackle too in Ross Blacklock, but they lost him prior to the season with a season-ending injury in practice.
Let's start with their best player on defense, Ben Banogu. Banogu is #15. Try to follow him on the following plays:
Banogu doesn't look huge, but he is obviously powerful, and can drive straight through an opposing lineman. More often though, he uses his speed to beat offensive lineman to get the sack. I actually didn't take too many Banogu highlights because not only does he consistently generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks even when he doesn't get the sack, he just dominates opposing offensive lineman so regularly that it doesn't even become noteworthy. He forces fumbles on opposing QBs trying to scramble, he's fast enough that running backs can't elude him, and he's a reliable tackler. He's harassed opposing QBs slightly less later in the season, but it's because opponents were obviously paying special attention to him.
On the other side of the line is human wrecking ball DE LJ Collier. LJ Collier is #91. Watch the penetration he gets against opposing offensive lines:
Take a look at the above clip, where TCU gets a sack with just a three man rush. It's essentially 5-on-3. Banogu is double-teamed, DT Corey Bethley is double-teamed, and LJ Collier is in a one-on-one matchup. Guess who gets the sack? This is the type of pressure that allows TCU's secondary to do so well against the Big 12's passing offenses, as they can still hurry QBs even when they drop 8 into coverage.
Lastly, here's one more of LJ Collier on the run defense:
Alright, so TCU has the ends pretty well covered, but what about the middle of the line, now that DT Ross Blacklock is out? They vary their front sometimes with 3- or 4-man fronts, but the defensive tackles you'll see will be DT Terrell Cooper and DT Corey Bethley. Bethley in particular has been improving a lot through the course of the season.
First, DT Terrell Cooper, #95:
And I said DT Corey Bethley (#94) was coming on strong recently, right? Here he is beating two blockers to get a sack in their most recent game:
This is hands-down the best defensive line Cal will face this season, and it's especially worrying given Cal's injury woes on the offensive line (we miss you, Patrick Mekari, our only NFL-caliber OL).
The TCU linebackers do a lot of pass coverage in the Big 12. Their best linebacker is undoubtedly Ty Summers, a likely late round NFL prospect who converted from defensive end. Here he is in pass coverage against Iowa State's NFL prospect WR Hakeem Butler:
Ty Summers has been struggling with injuries and hasn't made too much of an impact recently, but he should be back for the bowl game. LB Arico Evans has done well in his absence, but Evans has also been at fault for a couple of big plays by opposing offenses.
The other linebacker of note is LB Jawuan Johnson, a hard-hitting player who has done well defending against the run, but also with a tendency to overpursue opposing running backs. Because TCU has a 4-2-5 defense, there's really not too much to say else about their LB corps.
But there is about their secondary.
The star player of the TCU secondary was safety Innis Gaines, who was injured and lost for the season in the second half of their Texas Tech game. His impact was felt immediately. Here is the play immediately following his injury:
I am definitely not a fan of Markell Simmons, nor of the other starting safety Ridwan Issahaku, who's prone to boom or bust play: he'll get a critical sack or TD-saving tackle just as often as he'll get beat for a critical TD by the opponent. TCU lost FS Niko Small to an injury, and while he was decent in pass coverage when I did see him, I was also impressed by the play of his backup, freshman FS Trevon Moehrig-Woodard.
While TCU has dealt with injuries to their safeties (I think the official number is 8, but to be fair they play a ridiculous number of safeties to begin with), the one consistent bright spot in their secondary is cornerback Jeff Gladney. He's not the best corner Cal will see this season (e.g. Washington's Byron Murphy, Stanford's Paulson Adebo), but it doesn't really matter since we don't have Jared Goff still manning this ship. Gladney has been beaten by opposing wide receivers occasionally, but never bad enough that he wasn't able to recover and make a play on the ball when an opposing quarterback made a less-than-perfect throw. He's been a bit lucky in this sense that his mistakes were never punished. But he is clearly a reliable corner:
Gladney had a huge game against Oklahoma State, as OSU QB Taylor Cornelius kept stubbornly targeting his favorite WR Tylan Wallace despite the coverage by Gladney. A few examples:
An important element of their defense that I have yet to mention is the creative QB pressures TCU likes to bring. You'll see a number of members of the TCU secondary with sacks. Here's one such sack by Gladney, which forced a fumble:
Despite the injuries, TCU's secondary is still pretty good, although I'm not sure it particularly matters to Cal since our play-calling would likely have been the same regardless of how good their secondary is.
Also, I found it worth mentioning the biggest difference I saw from binge-watching Pac-12 games to binge-watching Big 12 games: the referees in the Pac-12 are malicious, the referees in the Big 12 are incompetent. There was a number of times where I was completely baffled as to why a pass interference flag wasn't thrown. This wont matter since the bowl game referees are always from an outside conference, but I figured I'd mention it.
If KaVontae Turpin were still on the team, this section would be all about him, his 99 yard kickoff returns, the effect of opposing teams kicking away from him, etc. Instead, TCU has been putting WR Jalen Reagor and RB Emari Demercado back to return. Reagor is Reagor, but Demercado has made a number of bone-headed decisions to return punts he should have fair caught, and ended up pinning TCU's offense inside their own 10. An early strength of this TCU team, and a big reason they had leads against Ohio State and Texas, was their ability to win the field position battle. TCU was never afraid to punt the ball and count on the defense to get a 3 and out, and force an opponent to punt from their own endzone. TCU is not a team that can typically drive 100 yards down the field and get a touchdown, but they often started drives at midfield when forcing opponents to punt from their endzone. Field position is how they kept games close against tough competition, and why they later got blown out by Oklahoma and West Virginia (Oklahoma kicked away from Turpin, but Turpin was also a big factor in winning the starting field position battle for the offense).
Even the punter, Adam Nunez, has regressed a bit over the course of the season, and he had a couple bad shanks late in the season (some of which were nullified by roughing the kicker penalties by the other team), after he and the coverage unit did so well early on in the season to pin opposing teams near their own endzone.
They have two field goal kickers, Cole Bunce and Jonathan Song. Bunce seems to have the stronger leg, but he's not very accurate. Song is typically accurate, but he also missed a 34 yard FG against Oklahoma State, so they are definitely a question mark at kicker.
This is definitely a winnable game for Cal, but they'll need to get creative on offense to find ways to compensate for the over-matched Cal offensive line. I'm sure we'll see some tricky offensive plays we haven't seen all year. The single biggest factor in this game will be turnovers. Both teams are good at forcing them, and both teams have done terribly when losing the turnover battle. Cal's defense will need to find ways to shut Jalen Reagor down, while TCU's offense will need to figure out how to get other players involved. Cal should be healthier at wide receiver, which should hopefully make Cal less predictable on offense. Garbers will need to keep his head on a swivel to hopefully avoid some big hits by the TCU defensive ends. Plus, Cal fans will definitely be psyched just to be at a bowl game, while TCU is likely disappointed after thinking they'd be competing for the Big 12 title this year.