Cal football seeks 1st win in Cheez-It Bowl rematch against TCU

Photo of California Golden Bears defensive end Braxten Croteau
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In 2020, Cal entered an unprecedented season with lofty expectations — some even listed the Bears as a dark horse candidate to claim the Pac-12 North crown. A disappointing 1-3 record dashed those hopes, but fans and experts alike were quick to write off last season as an anomaly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, Cal entered a full season with high, albeit slightly dampened, expectations. A deflating loss to Nevada at home in the season opener Saturday quickly flattened those expectations. Sound familiar?

Now, the question is how the Bears will respond. Will the blue and gold roll over and experience another 0-2 start to a season, or will they finally live up to expectations? That question will likely be answered Saturday when Cal takes on TCU in Fort Worth, Texas.

“It’s one thing to practice with great energy and effort. But as we know, effort and energy alone don’t win,” said Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox. “We’ve got to go out and play really good football against a really good team in order to get the win.”

The last — and only — time these two teams met was in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, a defensive slugfest that saw the Horned Frogs edge the Bears 10-7 in overtime. Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, then a redshirt freshman, threw for just 93 yards with three interceptions before being pulled from the contest. For TCU, four interceptions thrown meant a shift in focus to the run game, as the Horned Frogs gashed the Bears for 262 yards on the ground.

Certainly a lot has changed in the three years since, but TCU will likely deploy a similar strategy this weekend.

The Horned Frogs boast quite a few talented running backs, led by sophomore Zach Evans. In a season-opening 45-3 win over Duquesne, TCU rushed for 178 yards and four touchdowns. Evans, the Horned Frogs’ first-ever five-star signee, averaged a team-high 7.7 yards per carry last season — good enough for second place among true freshmen in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2020.

The Bears showed resilience against the run last week but will have their hands full against Evans. And if Evans gets going, it could be a long day for Cal against a TCU offense that often exploits the run-pass option.

“Offensively, they’ve got a lot of weapons: quarterback, a stable of running backs, very dynamic on the perimeter at receiver. They’ve got different styles of receivers,” Wilcox said. “It’s a complete team, a complete offense.

Reading that, some might guess Wilcox was talking about the Bears’ offense. In last week’s loss to Nevada, Cal came roaring out of the gates, finding success through a relentless rushing attack en route to touchdowns on its first two possessions. And then, it didn’t.

The blue and gold inexplicably shifted away from their winning formula — a decision that ultimately lost them what should have been a statement victory. If Cal hopes to win Saturday, look for it to lean on sophomore Damien Moore and return to a smash-mouth style of football.

“We want to be better offensively across the board, and we have to be,” said Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

But offensive mismanagement isn’t the only problem the Bears are facing. Cal’s special teams unit has struggled this season. Against the Wolf Pack, the Bears failed to pin their opponents behind the 20-yard line and averaged under 40 yards per punt. That level of play simply won’t fly against senior speedster Derius Davis, who ranked No. 5 nationally in punt return average and reached paydirt twice last season.

As if the situation couldn’t get any more dire for Cal, history is not on its side. Under head coach Gary Patterson, TCU holds a 119-5 record when allowing 17 points or fewer. For context, the Bears scored 17 points last week and have failed to reach that mark 16 times since Wilcox took the reins in 2017. Not to mention that the Horned Frogs are 7-0 against Pac-12 opponents under Patterson.

Cal was scheduled to host TCU last season before the pandemic shifted the Pac-12 to a conference-only schedule. In 2020, fans excused the change and, ultimately, the season’s outcome. In 2021, should the Bears lose Saturday, it would be much harder to excuse.

Kabir Rao covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.