Sept. 23, 2017. No. 5 USC 30, Cal 20.
Just minutes after suffering his first loss as head coach of Cal football, Justin Wilcox sat before the media to open his postgame press conference.
“We came into the game expecting to win it.”
To say the odds were stacked against the Bears heading into the contest is an understatement. At the time, the Trojans were a legitimate team with national championship aspirations, commanded by future New York Jets draft pick Sam Darnold, among other elite playmakers.
As a rebuilding program, the Bears were led by first-year starter Ross Bowers, whose six turnovers ultimately were the deciding factor in an otherwise competitive contest. In the end, the final result shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
But Wilcox’s demeanor and tone after the loss turned heads and set a precedent that under his watch, Cal expects to beat anybody and everybody when it takes the field, from the 2018 Idaho State Bengals to any of Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty squads.
Heading into the team’s first bowl appearance since 2015, Wilcox’s winning culture remains the same and has an effect on everyone from athletic director Jim Knowlton to the team’s water boys.
Yet confidence and attitude can only go so far.
After another offensive dud against the Paulson Adebo-inspired Stanford defense last Saturday, the odds are stacked against Wilcox and Cal again in their Cheez-It Bowl matchup with an experienced TCU team.
What exactly makes the Horned Frogs a 2-point favorite over the Bears?
It starts from the top with head coach Gary Patterson’s experience as the winningest coach in school history and the second-longest tenured coach with the same FBS program.
Patterson’s success in bowl games is a direct reflection of the tradition.
Most recently, the Horned Frogs rallied from an 18-point deficit to stun the Cardinal in last year’s Valero Alamo Bowl. Just a couple of years prior, they had stunned the college football world to an even greater extent, overcoming a 31-0 halftime lead in favor of Oregon in a triple-overtime TCU win. Chances are that with the 2018 Bears, a historic comeback won’t be in play.
If the Bears have any shot of ending TCU’s flair for the dramatic in recent bowl history, they’ll have to play a complete game on both sides of the ball. Since a 49-7 outburst against lowly Oregon State, Cal’s offense has sputtered, unable to generate more than 20 (offensive) points in any of the team’s past five games.
That stat alone doesn’t bode well against a Horned Frog defense that held teams under that mark on six occasions this season, finishing the year No. 22 in S&P rating.
As has been the case for the Bears’ most recent wins, Cal’s best shot at TCU will come on the other side of the ball, where the Cal defense completed the 2018 regular season at No. 12 in S&P.
In some ways, this matchup is perfect for the Bears, especially for linebackers Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk, who in 2018 combined for more tackles this season than any pairing in program history. The Horned Frogs aren’t an offensive powerhouse like many others in the Big-12, having completed less than 60 percent of their passes this fall.
Injuries under center have played a big part in that equation, but a particular X-factor has persisted, carrying the offense to bowl eligibility by snagging every ball thrown in his vicinity.
Even with three different quarterbacks receiving starts under center in 2018 (hey, that sounds familiar), sophomore Jalen Reagor has been nothing short of a glaring problem for opposing cornerbacks, rattling off 1,061 receiving yards and a touchdown in his last seven consecutive contests. Cal defensive back Camryn Bynum has been equally dominant, but he’ll have his hands full with one of the nation’s most prolific wideouts.
There’s a solid chance that TCU will start senior Grayson Muehlstein — previously the only other FBS fifth-year quarterback besides Cal’s Chase Forrest to not transfer despite never starting a game as a scholarship player throughout his entire tenure with one program.
But given Patterson’s wizardry in bowl games and the explosiveness of Reagor, TCU’s quarterback shouldn’t make a huge difference if the Bears can’t turn things around offensively.
Ideally, three weeks of practice time and a potential return for Kanawai Noa will make that a reality.
In the meantime, enjoy all the non-Cheez-It snacks you can before devouring the endless supply that awaits the blue and gold faithful this holiday season in the desert.