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.
The senior menu
At the expense of Garbers and Muehlstein, Twitter users and fans were having a field day on social media. From a coaching perspective, adjustments had to be made, although not many could have predicted the degree to which Cal would search for a spark.
It was clear that Garbers was being overwhelmed by one of the best defenses he had faced in his life. But still, it was quite the surprise when senior Chase Forrest, Cal’s emergency quarterback who hadn’t taken a game snap all year, strapped on his helmet and led the Bears onto the field for the second half.
Once envisioned as the team’s quarterback of the future, Forrest began his career as a backup to Cal golden boy Jared Goff in 2015.
Then Davis Webb, who had lost his starting job at Texas Tech to an up-and-coming gunslinger named Patrick Mahomes, transferred to Cal. Forrest stepped aside again in 2016, once again sporting a hat and headset on game days.
A year later, after a friendly battle with Bowers for starting duties, Forrest accepted his role as the primary backup for a third consecutive season. Most quarterbacks in his position would have thanked Cal and transferred for more playing time, especially after Sonny Dykes — the coach who recruited him to Berkeley — was let go after the 2016 campaign.
But Forrest stayed all the way through his final year of eligibility. Aside from garbage minutes late in blowouts, he spent four seasons on the bench.
Now, with his team struggling in a bowl game, his number was called upon. When he officially entered the field of play to a low murmur among the crowd, ESPN’s broadcasters jumped all over what was arguably the stat of the year.
As it turns out, Forrest was just one of two senior quarterbacks from a Power Five program who entered the season with their original team and had yet to start a game.
The other quarterback? That would be TCU’s Grayson Muehlstein. Go figure.
So there they were, after years of watching from the sidelines as plans changed and expectations shifted, squaring off in a one-score bowl game.
With his team’s offense officially on its last engine, Forrest tried his best to shed rust. The TCU offense was essentially running the ball on every play at this point, and when the Frogs were forced to throw, Muehlstein managed to outdo himself again.
If you guessed that an interception was thrown on the first drive of the second half, you’re a winner. On a key third down, Muehlstein had green grass in front of him but instead opted for a jump ball down the middle of the field. And if you guessed that Hawkins was on the receiving end of a Muehlstein pass for the third time in less than three quarters, you’re on fire.
Hawkins’ third interception of the day was the seventh between the two teams, breaking the record for most individual picks in Cheez-It Bowl history and eclipsing a 22-year record for most total interceptions in the bowl’s history.
Tonight’s 7 INTs has broken Cheez-It Bowl record for most INTs in a game. Record was 97 game between Arizona and New Mexico. That game had 6.
Jaylinn Hawkins also has broken the Cheez-It bowl record for INTs with 3.
— GoldenBlogs (@GoldenBlogs) December 27, 2018
At this point, it seemed destined that the game’s winner would be determined based on who screwed up the least, rather than who stepped up.
Sewo Olonilua and … Justin Rogers?
Had it not been for the seven interceptions (plus two more that Forrest would later toss, bringing the total to nine), the Cheez-It Bowl may very well have been known as the “Sewo Olonilua game.”
After Reagor nearly took Coutts’ sixth punt to the house, Olonilua said enough was enough. His 1-yard score after multiple downhill runs finally ended a run of more than 30 minutes of game time without a score, knotting things at seven apiece just before the third-quarter buzzer.
On the evening, Olonilua accounted for more than two-thirds of TCU’s offense, with 32 touches on the ground for 194 yards, more than seven times Muehlstein’s total passing yards (27).
Not bad for a guy who averaged less than 50 rushing yards per contest for the year.
With the game now tied, intensity was amped up an extra notch in the fourth quarter. The defensive dominance raged on. At one point, Muehlstein appeared to suffer a blow that knocked him out for a few plays, which meant that TCU had to snap the ball to somebody in the backfield.
In came freshman Justin Rogers, who was redshirting the season as a future project for Patterson. Media members and broadcasters were befuddled.
Entering the game, Rogers was reported to be suffering from “drop foot,” a not-to-be-taken-lightly condition “caused by weakness or paralysis of the muscles involved in lifting the front part of the foot,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
On brand with all the madness that had already happened, Patterson then had Rogers (attempt to) run on said foot that he supposedly had no control of. Rogers’ brief appearance was so unexpected that he wasn’t even on the scouting report prior to the game, although the Bears had little trouble containing him in his lone series.
Fortunately for Rogers’ sake, Muehlstein was able to reenter, with four interceptions to his name but also control of both of his feet.
Aside from Rogers becoming the fourth quarterback utilized in the game, the fourth quarter was relatively uneventful. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Forrest interception. TCU turnover on downs. Punt.
But with 2:15 left, the Horned Frog offense came alive at the right time. An Olonilua burst into the open field, a 15-yard pass (a miracle!) completion and a Reagor scamper set TCU up for a walk-off win.
Ice in his veins
No matter what happens in the previous 59 minutes and 56 seconds, college football games are often determined by the leg of a nervous kicker in the final four seconds of a game.
The Horned Frogs had a chance to end the ugliest bowl game in recent memory. Wilcox called his last timeout as TCU’s field goal unit entered the ring.
Like a chess master with one last trick up his sleeve, Patterson countered. After initially sending Bunce out to line up the kick, TCU’s coach pulled him in favor of Jonathan Song, the team’s normal kicker who had made its lone extra point of the game.
Then, in a last-second change of heart, Patterson switched kickers again. Song trotted off and Bunce sprinted on, hoping to connect on what would have been a career-long make.
Bunce’s kick had distance. Then it leaked left.
After 60 minutes of interceptions, punts and four different struggling or injured quarterbacks, the two teams were headed to overtime in glorious fashion.
After losing the coin toss for the second time in a span of four hours, the Bears took the field with a combination of players who hadn’t spent much time (if any) playing together — Forrest, Brown, Remigio, McCallan Castles and Alex Netherda, among others. Even a field goal may have instilled newfound life into a team that hadn’t scored since the opening frame.
But as we all know, this game couldn’t end without more fireworks. On the third play of overtime, Forrest was intercepted by linebacker Jawuan Johnson, who may have ended things right then and there if not for Cal right tackle Jake Curhan’s valiant effort to knock Johnson out of bounds short of the 10-yard line.
Standing on the sideline with a headset and cap, all Garbers could do was shake his head.
— Cheez-It® Bowl (@CheezItBowl) December 27, 2018
Thanks to a sideline interference call against one of TCU’s staff members (only in this mess of a football game would this happen), the Horned Frogs would start their own possession of overtime from the 40 rather than the 25.
The 15-yard difference didn’t matter. No shenanigans were pulled as Olonilua and Demercado pushed the Cal defense to the edge of the dock, reaching the Cal 10-yard line before the Bears could force a makeable kick.
When Song netted his 27-yard try to put the game to bed, it summarized Cal’s season in a near perfect manner: another defensive masterpiece with not enough dominoes falling on the offensive side.
For his career game, Olonilua was rewarded with offensive MVP honors, while Hawkins was granted the title of defensive MVP in a losing effort. The game’s nine interceptions were the third most ever thrown in a bowl game.
Four months later, the Bears struck out in the 2019 NFL draft, although Kunaszyk and Laird were among four former Cal players who signed undrafted free agent contracts in the NFL. The Horned Frogs had three of their top defensive studs selected.
Garbers and Rogers are both in the running to be the starters for their respective programs. In January, Wilcox announced several changes to his offensive staff, including quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo switching to tight ends and Baldwin inheriting the QB room for the 2019 season.
After a reshuffling of bowl assignments in the offseason, the Pac-12 will no longer have a conference tie-in with the Cheez-It Bowl starting in 2020.