If the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl had a flavor, some options may be Lackluster Lemon Pepper or Sloppy Sea Salt — and from an offensive standpoint, there was nothing satisfying about it.
Still, the game will go down in history. In part as a laughing stock, in part as a defensive anomaly.
Cal (7-6, 4-5) and TCU’s (7-6, 4-5) overtime contest that ended in favor of the Horned Frogs, 10-7, featured a historically bad nine interceptions (Cal five, TCU, four) and was only meekly revived by both squads’ defense.
“Obviously disappointed the outcome of the game,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “We just made too many mistakes… more than anything just really proud of our players and their toughness.”
The postseason game featured the heartwarming story of the only fifth-year senior quarterback in the nation who has yet to see a start in a college game, Chase Forrest, leading his team in the second half. By the time Cal’s Forrest got his chance, however, Cal’s offense was flat and he, himself, caught the turnover bug.
Behind the production from running back Sewo Olonilua, who had a career day with 28 carries for 176 yards, TCU salvaged quarterback Grayson Muehlstein’s costly mistakes.
Muehlstein, TCU’s third string called upon to action following two injuries to his predecessors, had an impressively bad day of play, amassing a stat line of seven for 20 on passing attempts, 27 passing yards and four interceptions. With no true backup, however, Muehlstein was forced to weather the ugly storm all night.
Muehlstein’s only true offensive weapon, leading wide receiver Jalen Reagor, was silenced by Cal’s defensive backs and did not see much action in the backfield either.
Both starting quarterbacks, Chase Garbers for Cal and Muehlstein for TCU, struggled immensely all night. Garbers, while out leading receiver Vic Wharton III, was gifted minimal reps from wide receiver Kanawai Noa — who was sidelined with injury for the final five games of Cal’s regular season.
Garbers showed some productive offensive rhythm in the first, with Cal’s only scoring drive catapulted by Noa and a few quarterback scrambles. But misreads on intended passes to wide receiver Moe Ways led to the turnover fiasco resulted in two of three interceptions in the first half.
Credit to Cal’s defense, none of the interceptions resulted in points on the board for TCU, but Garbers’ performance was enough for Cal’s staff to pull the plug on their starter in favor of Forrest.
On the topic of defense, Cal safety Jaylinn Hawkins had a career-high three interceptions en route to Cal’s five — making history as the most by a Cal team since the 1992 Citrus Bowl against Clemson.
“It’s the front seven, it’s the communication… everybody being on point, that’s when big plays come,” Hawkins said about his interceptions.
Also standing out on Cal defense were inside linebackers Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver who finished with 14 tackles each. Cornerback Traveon Beck was also hot early on but ultimately left the contest after going down with an apparent injury.
Forrest and Garbers could not get the passing game going and production was also stifled in the run game. Freshman Christopher Brown Jr., took over for redshirt senior starter Patrick Laird, and saw his most touches all season, totaling 57 yards on 14 carries.
The fuel behind Cal’s fire in 2018 manifested itself, in part, as a win in a bowl game — a feat that would prove insurmountable despite Cal’s consistently masterful defensive performances.
“It’s frustrating when you have those opportunities and you’re not able to capitalize like you want to,” Wilcox said. “And at the same time I’m so thankful for the guys… that have helped Cal football better itself.”