Hello friends, and welcome to the last game of TCU’s 2018 campaign. I’d say it’s a merciful end, but to be honest, I’m dang excited for the Mule to go out in style. And yes, I wish we were in something more glamorous than the Cheez-It Bowl, but the day after the debacle in Lawrence, we didn’t think we were going to a bowl. So, in anticipation of a fun and meaningless game between two mediocre-to-bad Power 5 teams, let’s get stats-y.
Cheez-It Bowl, Phoenix Arizona, December 26th:
TCU Horned Frogs (57th S&P+, 99th offense, 23rd defense) vs. Cal Golden Bears (64th, 121st, 12th)
After a season full of stumbles, TCU clawed their way into bowl eligibility (perhaps “limped their way” is more appropriate). Arbitrary choices and bets on TCU revenue and fan traveling excluded TCU from either the Texas Bowl or the Liberty Bowl, and the Horned Frogs find themselves headed west to Phoenix, facing the California Golden Bears in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Cal comes into this game at 7-5, finishing 5th in the conference with a 4-5 record in the Pac 12. Cal could be TCU’s twin, identical to the Horned Frogs in a few key ways. First, their conference position (5th, never within striking distance, but giving a few teams a scare). Second, their style: TCU and Cal are both defense heavy teams who failed to string together a consistent offensive effort this season. Cal’s offense ranked worse than TCU’s, if you can believe it, finishing around teams like Southern Miss, Western Kentucky, Charlotte, and Kansas. TCU’s offense sat slightly higher, surrounding at 99th by teams like Arkansas, UConn, San Diego State, and Georgia State. On the other hand, both teams were defensively elite, with Cal getting the slight edge, closer to your Mississippi State, Alabama, Fresno State than TCU, who ranked around Utah, Kentucky, and Florida, decidedly second tier. We find ourselves faced with the familiar Horned Frog Gambit, albeit a little modified: Can TCU’s defense be better than Cal’s offense by more than Cal’s defense is better than TCU’s offense?
Both Cal and TCU have the defensive edge. Cal has succeeded slightly in limiting big plays and in controlling field position, in terms of defense. TCU’s defense struggles to limit teams to field goals instead of touchdowns in scoring opportunities, but fortunately, Cal’s offense has struggled to convert their opportunities. The Turnover game is abysmal on both sides, so I expect the winner of the turnover battle to be the winner of the game. As we are well aware, TCU’s offense struggles to find big plays and barely converts more than a field goal per scoring opportunity, but I will admit it is refreshing to play an opponent who feels the same struggles.
In advanced of this game, I compared TCU and Cal’s schedules to identify similar opponents and season patterns.
Cal faced a middling schedule, 66th in SOS. The Bears played 5 top 50 teams, going 2-3 against them, and their mean opponent rank was 61.45 (56 median). Cal played a couple of defense heavy teams, going 3-2 against the five Top 50 defenses they faced this season. The team most similar to TCU, BYU was a below-average offense and a definitively good defense. That game, a 21-18 slugfest in Provo provides a shadow of what we might most reasonably expect from the Cal-TCU game, meanwhile acknowledging that both Cal and TCU are entirely different teams than they were in game 2 of this season. Cal’s best performance came against Oregon State, where they ranked in the 85th percentile of performances. Their best defensive games were against UNC and Arizona, holding both teams to 17 points and ranking in the 91st percentile. Cal’s worst loss was a thumper to UCLA, losing 37-7 at home to the #91st S&P+ team. Their best win was against Washington, eking out a 12-10 win against the nation’s 3rd best defense.
TCU’s 30th ranked strength of schedule featured 6 top 50 teams, (3 top 20), against which the Frogs went 1-5. Perhaps telling for TCU bowl performance, the Frogs went 1-1 against the two top 50 defenses they faced this season. TCU’s mean opponent rank is a full ten spots higher than Cal, although the median of 44 is the same. TCU’s tougher schedule is a result of swapping BYU for Ohio State, which accounts for much of the difference. In conference, TCU and Cal played a very similar schedule. TCU’s best win this season came at home against #28 Oklahoma State, securing bowl eligibility for the Frogs. There is something to be said for finishing your season on your best win, heading into bowl season on a hot streak. TCU’s worst loss is obvious, and we’ll not mention it here. The team most similar to Cal that TCU faced was Iowa State pre-Purdy, in which the Frogs and Cyclones stood around for 50 minutes and then TCU kicked a field goal to win. Once again, that is indicative of what we can expect between Cal and TCU (read: this game might be a snoozer). TCU’s best overall performance came against SMU, and the best offensive performance oddly came against the best defense they faced, 77th percentile against Ohio State.
When Cal has the Ball:
To better understand how the Cal offense might attack the Horned Frog defense, I watched Cal’s game against Washington. The Huskies have a better defense than TCU, clearly, but they run a DB-heavy 4 man front, and their emphasis on speed and positioning are reminiscent of TCU’s. I think it’s a fair comparison for scouting purposes.
Against Washington, Cal’s offense struggled, finding 2 field goals on 4 scoring opportunities and nothing else (their one TD was a defensive TD). Most importantly, the Bear offense didn’t do anything stupid, avoiding turnovers and special teams mishaps apart from an ill-timed long punt return.
Cal’s offense is a spread to run style offense, heavy on the jet sweep and the zone read, adding in a few RPOs along the seams. They run the pistol, spending most of their time in 1-1 personnel, with the tight end a functional H back at times. A plurality of their plays involved trips out to one side, with a jet sweep motion to the weak side of the play. As for the passing game, Cal was limited in options given their talent level and the defense they were playing.
That spread looks familiar, as Cal looks to get receivers in space for big gains. They found few big gains against Washington, with most of their success coming from runs, mostly up the middle. Cal’s two long passing attempts were merely prayers, both to receivers well-covered and not in a position to make big plays. You’ll note 4 sacks - Cal is 77th in sack rate, and it gets worse under the blitz. TCU’s defensive line can change the game, with how they disrupt the timing and quick space game of Cal’s offense.
Key Issues for TCU’s Defense
- Stopping the run: Cal is marginally better at the rush than the pass (94th vs 122nd in S&P+), and their ability to shorten a game with defense and the run game tilts the onus back onto their opponents’ offense to make a mistake.
- Turnovers: Cal’s offense lost 11 fumbles and gave away 15 interceptions all season. The opportunities are there, and for a TCU team who recovered 9 fumbles and had only 7 interceptions this season, those opportunities can change the game.
- First Down Success: The majority of Cal’s touchdowns and big plays come from first downs. Stopping a struggling offense and forcing obvious passing downs will play to TCU’s strengths (11th in Passing S&P+) and take pressure off the Frogs having to account for a jet sweep and a QB run in non-obvious passing situations.
- Don’t Bend: The Bears just do not get big plays - 129th in Big Play rate and 126th in IsoPPP. The Frog defense doesn’t give up big many plays - 36th in Big Play rate and 61st in IsoPPP. Forcing Cal into gaining consistent chunks of yards will put the emphasis on their weak unit executing.
- Strike while the Iron is hot:
56% of touchdowns and 43.4% of big plays allowed by Cal’s defense came on first down. Meanwhile, most of TCU’s success in big plays and touchdowns comes on second down (42% big play, 41.6% touchdown). Striking early against a good defense handicaps an opponent’s ability to discern trends and update their guessing patterns, making it less likely they’ll anticipate and force a mistake.
When TCU has the ball:
The follow section cannot be more than mere guesswork; TCU’s injury and personnel situation has been as volatile as any this season, and I noted last week the specific issues that held the Frogs back on offense.
In lieu of that, I’ll highlight the two key sticking points for the TCU offense.
- TCU OL vs Cal DL
TCU’s offensive line play has been sub-par this season, to say in the least: 58th in opportunity rate, 104th in stuff rate, 111th in line yards. There have been some high points - 49th in power success rate, 12th in sack rate - but on the whole, TCU has been limited by line play.
Cal’s defensive line hasn’t excelled all season, but when they’ve been good, Cal’s defense has been unstoppable. Against Washington, line play enabled 2 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, five passes defended, and six QB hurries. The discipline of their line play took away a full dimension of Washington screens. Watch the DL on a screen:
That’s great recognition, and recovery, and ended in an incompletion to avoid the pressure. TCU is going to have its hands full with a disciplined DL, and will likely resort to spreading the ball outside to avoid the issue.
2. Letting the Mule be the Mule or “Timing and Speed”
The most we can deduce about TCU’s offense is from the Oklahoma State game, where the Frogs had a week of full preparation for Grayson Muehlstein. TCU’s offense factored in the Wild Frog routinely, and we can expect some more of that trickery. In the absence of elite QB play, TCU is just cutting out the middle man, going straight to talent in space. In a new wrinkle, we saw Jalen Reagor take multiple snaps from the shotgun. In terms of QB play, the Mule held his own; his textbook commitment to the read was a refreshing change of pace for TCU - all season, the Frogs suffered from QBs overthinking the read or not-thinking about the read at all. Mule had more than a few solid runs from pulling on the zone read. Sticking to the basics, the Frogs will be able to get in a groove. When faced with an elite defense, simpler is better.
Another way the Frogs will look to find success is by trying to catch teams overreacting to Jalen Reagor’s speed. For instance, look at this play from TCU’s first touchdown drive during the Oklahoma State game.
Here, Reagor goes into motion, and Demercardo in the backfield goes to block on the weak side; a standard setup for a jet sweep. Instead, the slot receiver on the strong side runs a lazy out, and Derius Davis capitalizes on a quick WR screen for a 21 yard gain. The Bears will be ready for Reagor, and TCU has shown some abilities to mobilize their more under-recognized talent to capitalize on anticipation.
S&P+ predicts a TCU 21-20 victory. This is the right idea for a margin, although I think it’s a little optimistic about the scoring. I’m going bold here, and I’m predicting a whole bunch of field goals, and maybe a defensive scores. Give me Cal in a close one, as the Bears’ defense is too much to for the Frogs struggling offense to overcome. Cal 16, TCU 15.