Taste of victory: Cal football craves win over TCU in Cheez-It Bowl

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Five months ago, Cal football commenced its fall camp — the true start of the 2018 season — and many times since then, players and coaches have entered California Memorial Stadium in the wee hours of the morning and exited well into the night.

After months of grit, the final stop in 2018 for the Bears is Phoenix, Arizona, where Cal (7-5, 4-5) will take on TCU (6-6, 4-5) in the Cheez-It Bowl the day after Christmas.

The extra two-week preparation for the postseason mirrors Cal’s consistent work ethic — one week at a time, one game at a time, one play at a time. All season, the Bears have echoed the sentiments of never looking too far ahead yet understanding that every success and failure was building up to their goal for the season: to win a bowl game.

In just a few days, Cal will take on a scrappily pieced together TCU team that has struggled with depth all season long because of injuries. While the Horned Frogs will go to war with many players affected by the bumps and bruises of an extended college football season, the Bears are relatively healthy and undoubtedly hungry as they make their first bowl game appearance since 2015.

Running the helm for the Horned Frogs will be fifth-year senior Grayson Muehlstein, who was quickly called upon from his spot as a third-string quarterback when his predecessors went down with injuries.

Muehlstein was the starting quarterback during TCU’s final regular-season matchup against Oklahoma State — he went on to lead his team to a 31-24 win with 180 passing yards and two touchdowns.

A key weapon for all three of TCU’s passers this season has been wide receiver Jalen Reagor, who leads the Horned Frogs with a whopping 72 receptions (42 more than the second-highest receiver). Reagor has totaled 1,061 receiving yards, whereas Cal’s leading receiver pieced together 502.

“He’s a really, really explosive player,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “Whether they get him in the backfield and hand it to him, Wildcat, put him in the slot.”

On the defensive side of the ball, TCU has run its defense in a similar way for a number of years, a fact that offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin said makes its formations consistent but also highly dialed in. The Horned Frogs have some impressive talents, led by senior defensive ends L.J. Collier and Ben Banogu, but TCU’s strength in its defense lies in its dynamic and wide-spanning nature.

“You don’t see a lot of drop-off,” Baldwin said. “Almost every time you see great defenses, it’s not usually one or two superstars.”

For the umpteenth time this year, Cal’s storyline remains the same for bagging a bowl win: The defense must orchestrate its notoriously excellent play, and the offense must do just enough. Neither Cal nor TCU possess high-firing offenses, but Cal quarterback Chase Garbers displayed glimpses of growth and potential as the season wound down.

Additionally, Garbers will have wide receiver Jordan Duncan back — he was sidelined with an injury after Cal’s Oct. 6 loss to Arizona. Duncan, who had the potential to be a big red zone target for the Bears, raked in five receptions and a touchdown in Cal’s final game of the regular season and is likely to be a coveted man in the bowl game.

On the ground for Cal, production has been stifled, with much of its rhythm coming by way of quarterback runs. What was once a fruitful position with seemingly limitless options of running backs became a position whose snaps were dominated by redshirt senior Patrick Laird. Laird, while having a relatively disappointing season after a productive 2017, has one game left to put on a show for Cal fans.

Though they failed to bring home the Axe, the Bears captured some incredible, marquee wins this season, and sending their seniors off with a bowl game victory might just be the icing on the cake.

Christie Aguilar covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @caguilarsports.