Baseball in December: Looking back at Cal football’s Cheez-It Bowl struggle with TCU, Part 1

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Six months ago, a football game was played at Chase Field in Phoenix, the home of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. 

Judging by the final score, however, it’s easy for one to question whether the two teams in fact played 60-plus minutes on the gridiron rather than nine innings on the diamond. 

For better or worse, the (football) game was one of the more memorable bowl contests of the 2018 holiday season, netting TV ratings that looked down on those of several other non-CFP postseason games. In the infamous low-scoring affair — the first time the two programs had ever clashed between the hashes — TCU defeated Cal in overtime, 10-7.

It was a showdown that kicked off as the Cheez-It Bowl and by halftime had adopted an extra “n” in its name thanks to six first-half throws to the opposing defense, unofficially taking on the title of “Cheez-I(n)t Bowl.”

Four quarterbacks, nine interceptions and an infamous name change later, the game was over. After the loss, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox reportedly took several days to clear his head and decided to shuffle the majority of his offensive staff, promising better results in the near future.

This is the story of the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, a battle that began with bittersweet optimism and concluded with satire, confusion and a new rock bottom from the standpoint of the Cal offense. 

Six months later, it remains to be seen whether the Bears have grown from their drought in the desert or are still searching for their oasis. It’s likely that most coaches and student-athletes view the loss today as simply an afterthought. But today, we bite the bullet and reminisce about the day that led to Wilcox’s hibernation and two senior quarterbacks seemingly destined to steal the spotlight that night. 

 

First impressions

Cal and TCU settled into the suburbs of Phoenix a few days prior to game day, spending Christmas Eve practicing on local high school fields and the rest of their time soaking in everything a bowl game has to offer. The packed itinerary included media appearances, community outreach and final game adjustments, all while players squeezed in holiday outings with family. 

Many others involved with the game — from media members to fans to Oski and whatever a Horned Frog is — touched down in Arizona on the morning of Dec. 26, coming in waves from the Bay Area and the Dallas area. Shoutout to Southwest Airlines for being a consensus pick among the majority. 

For both the Bears and Horned Frogs, a 2018 Cheez-It Bowl invitation was nothing to sneeze at. Though the team had to overcome infuriating inconsistency at times offensively, Cal’s defensive dominance culminated in the team’s second bowl appearance since 2012 — a win for Wilcox in his second year at the helm of the program.

On the opposite sideline, TCU was on its final legs at the quarterback position, having suffered season-ending injuries to both starter Shawn Robinson and backup Mike Collins. With two games left in the season, the previously ranked Horned Frogs held a 4-6 record and were down to senior Grayson Muehlstein as the last viable option under center, but Gary Patterson’s squad still managed to squeeze out a pair of wins to clinch his fifth straight bowl appearance.

To nobody’s surprise, both teams’ respective defenses commanded headlines before (and spoiler: during) the game. With the statuses of several Cal receivers lingering in the air throughout practice week, many viewed TCU star wideout Jalen Reagor as the key difference, giving the Horned Frogs a slight edge in Vegas.

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

 

You’re out, you’re in

The final game of a collegiate season is always bittersweet on a number of levels, often being the last time a set of roommates, teammates and friends compete on the same field.

That was the case for TCU’s senior core on the defensive front. Four months after the Cheez-It Bowl, defensive end L.J. Collier became a first-round pick for the Seattle Seahawks, while the forces behind him — linebackers Ben Banogu and Ty Summers — heard their names called in the second and seventh rounds, respectively.

The Horned Frogs’ defense wasn’t just nasty. It was a seasoned group of veterans who had competed against and defeated Pac-12 schools (Oregon and Stanford) in two of their previous three bowl matchups.

TCU’s postseason experience up and down its defense mounted even more pressure on Cal’s offensive playmakers, at the time held together by duct tape and a freshman quarterback eager to prove himself in the final chapter of 2018.

Here’s where the bad news officially began for the Bears. A few days before kickoff, Wilcox revealed that the team’s leading wideout, redshirt senior Vic Wharton III, would not play for undisclosed reasons.

Without Wharton, the status of oft-injured receiver Kanawai Noa, who missed the previous four contests with a lower-body injury, became a central talking point as both teams warmed up on the makeshift gridiron.

Less than 90 minutes before kickoff, Noa emerged from the locker room and began running routes and leading his warmup line.

A few plays into the Bears’ first drive of the game, Noa jogged out to his place in the slot position, much to the delight of the Cal faithful. While fans didn’t know it at the time, it would be his last game repping the blue and gold. Months later, he announced his intent to transfer for his final year of eligibility, ultimately committing to Nebraska.

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

The first of … one

Moments before Noa made his brief return official, TCU had won the toss and elected to defer. When Cole Bunce’s opening kickoff died about six yards short of the end zone, Cal’s Ashtyn Davis pulled off an old trick, grabbing the ball while stepping out of bounds, resulting in an automatic penalty on Bunce and earning his offense a start at its own 35-yard line.

Starting a bowl game on the right foot — even if it’s out of bounds — is always a good thing, and Cal got the beginning it had hoped for. 

As they had for most of the season, the Bears flashed fluidity in moving the chains early on, getting both Noa and tailback Patrick Laird touches early. But TCU’s seven-man front was as good as advertised, ready for anything Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin could cook up. 

Just as the Bears reached the outskirts of field goal range, TCU inside linebacker Arico Evans caught up to Garbers six yards behind the line of scrimmage, recording the first of five TCU sacks on the evening. A minute later, Steven Coutts was on to punt, and the defensive onslaught was on.

Muehlstein and Reagor trotted out for their best shot against Cal’s own much-improved front seven, anchored from behind by All-Pac-12 linebackers Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver.

Despite losing two quarterbacks in a span of just a few weeks, Reagor still managed to produce a breakout sophomore campaign, compiling more than 1,000 receiving yards and 11 total scores. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Reagor had been the primary point of emphasis in Tim DeRuyter’s extensive game plan to keep the open field contained.

In addition to their dwindling supply of available arms, the Horned Frogs had also suffered a series of injuries late in the year from the tailback position. 

With lead running back Darius Anderson out for the game and Cal prioritizing Reagor’s explosiveness, TCU was expected to lean heavily on a pairing of sophomore Emari Demercado and junior power back Sewo Olonilua.

As the first half unfolded, it was evident that Kunaszyk and Weaver were fired up, as were “The Takers” in Cal’s secondary: cornerbacks Elijah Hicks and Camryn Bynum and safeties Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins.

TCU punted away its first possession after just 15 yards. The Bears managed just 18 in its second possession — another punt. Then, as an inexperienced quarterback tends to do, Muehlstein tossed a laser down the middle of the field to a receiver who had no idea that the ball had been thrown. Hawkins did. 

Like a true center fielder, Hawkins lay out and wrapped his mitts under the ball for the game’s first turnover. Two plays later — accentuated by a completion to Noa inside the 5-yard line — it was Garbers himself who snuck over left tackle to give Cal the lead. Score one for the “underdogs” at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. 

As it turns out, that 4-yard scamper would be Cal’s only points of the game. 

 

The end of an era

When healthy, Noa and Laird were arguably Cal’s most consistent offensive threats in two full seasons together, offering a healthy balance of playing IQ and talent. With Laird’s departure and Noa’s subsequent transfer, the first half of the bowl game ended up being their last appearance competing for Cal football. 

On the aforementioned 30-yard connection that set up Garbers’ score, Noa got behind his defender and snatched his quarterback’s best thrown ball of the game. Since Garbers put the pigskin in a place where only his receiver could snag it, Noa had to lunge forward a couple extra inches, forcing him to leave his feet at the last second. 

Noa’s helmet was the first thing to hit the ground, and while the play didn’t concern many at first, his inability to get up eventually did. As he stumbled off the field with the help of a trainer, it became evident that this likely wasn’t a shoulder stinger or something that may have aggravated his previous injury. 

 

 

Noa actually reentered the game in the second quarter, but after a drive, he was removed entirely and didn’t come back onto the field for the second half. 

Not long after Noa’s exit, another fan favorite played his last down with the Bears. Laird, the former walk-on who came in just 68 rushing yards shy of a second straight 1,000-yard season, sustained his own injury sometime in the first half after just seven carries for 29 yards. 

Laird’s accomplishments on and off the field — from double majoring in the classroom to making the football team in the first place to kickstarting his Summer Reading Challenge for kids — make it easy for fans to love everything he brought to the program as both a player and a person. 

It wasn’t quite as dramatic as Woody waving goodbye to Andy at the end of “Toy Story 3,” but the era of Noa and Laird was officially over in Berkeley. True freshmen Nikko Remigio and Christopher Brown Jr. were the default fill-ins for Cal’s departing duo as both offenses entered a deep tailspin. 

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

Picks: six 

Garbers began the year as Cal’s presumptive third-string quarterback, initially behind Ross Bowers and Brandon McIlwain on the depth chart. But after separating himself from the pack midway through the year, Garbers was an efficient if not dominant player, especially when taking into account his youth. Entering his first bowl game, his name held a robust 14-to-7 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. 

In a span of five drives after Garbers’ touchdown run, he threw three passes to the TCU defense. 

It wasn’t as if Garbers’ worst nightmare was coming true, but without the services of Noa and Wharton, it was evident that Cal’s young signal-caller was in for a long night. 

TCU defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow put together a masterful game plan, changing the pre- and post-snap picture and fooling Garbers multiple times with different looks. One bad read after the other, Garbers couldn’t seem to put any sort of rhythm together, even after a second Hawkins interception set the Bears up in the red zone. 

The good news for Cal? On the other sideline, Muehlstein was enduring a similar nightmare, maybe even a worse one. Just a couple games prior to the bowl, Muehlstein had never started a game at the collegiate level, spending more than four years without seeing the field for more than a couple of plays per season. 

Hawkins’ second takeaway came on a busted trick play in which Muehlstein and Reagor played hot potato across the field, with the receiver throwing a forward pass to his quarterback, who threw another forward pass (which is illegal) and was picked off once again by Cal’s strong safety — about the only guy having a “great” game thus far. 

Later in the half, Muehlstein committed the cardinal sin of throwing across his body, right into the hands of Kunaszyk. Hey, at least the interception came on a legal pass this time around. 

A few more punts and another Garbers interception later, the first half (finally) drew to a close. All in all, the teams entered halftime with 7 total points and six interceptions. The Cheez-I(n)t Bowl was born. 

 

 

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.