Trouble in Texas: Cal drops nail-biter to TCU

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Following a season-opening loss to Nevada, all the talk this week was about Cal’s conservative play-calling and inexplicable coaching decisions. The Bears heard the critics and, for the most part, responded with big plays and strong resolve.

But big plays were punctuated by small mistakes. Those small mistakes added up and ultimately proved too much to handle as the blue and gold fell 34-32 to TCU in a slugfest that bore little resemblance to the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.

“The takeaway is that it’s in the margins. We’re a few plays away from playing pretty good football,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “Unfortunately, you don’t get do-overs. Once that opportunity is gone, it is gone.”

Cal had a tall task on its hands already: become the first Pac-12 team to beat a Gary Patterson-led Horned Frogs squad. Many believed that a winning formula for the Bears would involve leaning on their stable of running backs and taking the ball out of senior quarterback Chase Garbers’ hands. But Wilcox and Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave had other ideas.

Garbers had arguably the best game of his career since his coming-out party against Ole Miss in 2019. Before halftime, Garbers tossed two touchdowns and went 11-14 for 235 yards — his most ever in a single half. But what was most impressive was his commitment to and precision in taking shots down the field. It was a stark contrast to last week’s game plan, which centered around screen passes and short-yardage out routes.

A 68-yard dime to senior wide receiver Trevon Clark marked the longest completion of Garbers’ career. Not to mention, that play followed a 54-yard touchdown connection between the duo and a 49-yard strike to redshirt senior receiver Kekoa Crawford. In all, the Bears converted six plays of 15 yards or more, several of which surprisingly targeted Horned Frogs standout cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated cornerback in the nation in 2020.

“We took deep shots this week because we saw the defense was vulnerable out there,” Garbers said. “We knew our guys could go make some plays. I just had to throw it up to them, and they did exactly that.”

It was a level of aggression that has not been seen from Cal in a very long time, and one that often carried over to the defensive side of the ball. The Bears generated pressure on TCU quarterback Max Duggan all day long, keeping the Horned Frogs’ high-octane offense from getting into a rhythm early on. Redshirt senior safety Daniel Scott stood out in particular, making several open-field tackles and seizing a pick six to put Cal up by two scores.

But the blue and gold’s unbridled aggression also led to mistakes. A recurring theme over the past two seasons, Cal’s special teams struggled badly. One missed PAT attempt and a failed 2-point conversion on the Bears’ first two scoring drives left the door wide open for TCU to mount a comeback. It was a deja vu scenario for Cal fans who saw the Bears blow a two-score lead just one week prior.

And then, the mistakes cost Cal. For as stout as the Bears’ defense was in the first quarter, they began to break in the second, especially following a mystery injury to redshirt senior Kuony Deng that left the outside linebacker in crutches on the sideline.

“We knew all of their backs ran hard. We knew we were going to have to make physical tackles to stop them,” said Cal outside linebacker Cam Goode. “We’ve just got to wrap up and make more routine tackles in the end.”

Cal managed to contain TCU running back Zach Evans for most of the first half. But you can only keep lightning in a bottle for so long. Evans broke free for a 51-yard touchdown scamper just before halftime to shift the momentum in favor of the Horned Frogs. That momentum stayed on TCU’s side until sophomore running back Damien Moore busted up the middle untouched to reclaim the Bears’ lead early in the fourth quarter.

But the back-and-forth continued. The Horned Frogs easily marched down the field en route a go-ahead 45-yard hookup from Duggan to receiver Quentin Johnston, who lit up Cal’s defense for 95 yards and two touchdowns in the afternoon. Duggan drove the dagger further into the Bears’ chest with 5:47 left in the contest, weaving through several Cal defenders on his way to a 9-yard touchdown run. It was exactly the type of play that had analysts salivating over Duggan’s dual-threat ability.

Yet the Bears refused to roll over, responding with resilience. A balanced drive brought Cal down the field in time for Moore to pound in yet another touchdown rush. But for as many big plays as they made, the Bears fell victim to small mistakes.

On the 2-point conversion to knot the game up, Moore fumbled the ball — and Cal’s hopes — away. It was the Bears’ third failed attempt at converting after reaching the end zone. Despite scoring five touchdowns, Cal managed just 32 points.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win. But I think we took a lot of strides as an offense and as a team,” Garbers said.

Clearly, the Bears learned from last week. They replaced conservative coaching decisions with aggression and a reliance on defense with offensive execution. They finally appeared to make the big strides on offense that fans have been hoping for. Though unfortunately for the blue and gold, they also took small plays for granted — a decision that cost them a lead and the game for the second week in a row.

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