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Program on the Rise: A Q&A with California Golden Blogs

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We chatted with boomtho, Vincent Sheu, and Nick Kranz of SB Nation’s California Golden Blogs to get the skinny on TCU’s bowl opponent.

NCAA Football: California at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Frogs O’ War: TCU and Cal have never played before, but this is the first of three games on the schedule. What do Golden Bears fans think about TCU/TCU Football from a distance, and what do want Frog fans to know about y’all?

boomtho: I can’t say what Cal fans broadly think about TCU, but to me a few things come to mind:

-First thing is Gary Patterson—to me, he seems inseparable from the overall program and his longevity and run are incredibly impressive

-Second is the program’s performance in the 2000s, when Patterson (I will admit I Wiki’d this) had eight 10-win seasons (!) in 10 years

-Third, I think of a collection of great college players. Oddly enough my first thought is Jerry Hughes, followed by Andy Dalton and Josh Doctson

Nick Kranz: Similar to boomtho, Gary Patterson is the name I most closely associate with TCU. I’ve always thought of TCU as very similar to Utah—a small-conference team that made a sharp head coaching hire, built a reputation around defense and program stability, and navigated the transition from G5 to P5 football with impressive speed.

What do I want TCU fans to know about Cal? Well, I think Cal fans right now feel like we don’t have a ton of recent history to hang our hat on. Other than the brief flourish of the all-offense, no-defense Jared Goff era, Cal football has been pretty dire. We want everybody to remember that—for a brief period in the mid-2000s—Cal was perhaps the most unlikely hotbed for a bevy of influential talent development, from Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch to lesser known, but quietly impactful pros like Cameron Jordan and Alex Mack. That those teams never quite got over the hump to win a conference title still hurts, but the memory gives Cal fans hope that it’s possible for Cal to compete with their conference rivals for in-state recruits and build a monster team given the right circumstances.

FOW: Despite having never played each other, there is great familiarity between these two staffs, going back to Justin Wilcox’s time at Boise State. Now two years into his career at Cal, what are the early returns for Wilcox as a head coach?

boomtho: I think Coach Wilcox has done a really nice job getting the program on a good path after the relatively ugly end to the Sonny Dykes era.

The most impressive thing that Coach Wilcox and his staff (especially DC Tim DeRuyter and DB coach Gerald Alexander) have done is turn around a horrible defense into a ~top-25 defense that is capable of winning games by itself. Coach Wilcox has also impressed in his performances vs. good teams—with the time-tested formula of gritty defense + opportunistic offense giving Cal a fighting chance vs. more talented teams like UW and USC (our big wins for this year). In these games, Wilcox generally has shown quite an adept sense for game management—balancing fourth-down aggression, situational football, and the game flow.

On the negative side, Wilcox has shown two negatives thus far. The first is the offensive performance—despite bringing Beau Baldwin (a former HC who was very well-regarded when hired), the offense has been inconsistent and frankly pretty inept. Had Cal had even an average offense this year, they would have likely won 10 games and at least been in the hunt for the Pac-12 North title. Wilcox’s second weakness is related—it’s recruiting, largely on offense, but really in all three phases. Wilcox has started to solidify the Bay Area recruiting, which is important (and was overlooked by Dykes), but has continued to lose ground vs. Stanford and not really made inroads with any 5-star or national recruits.

FOW: TCU fans are... let’s call it a little disappointed... to see the Frogs heading to something called the Cheez-It Bowl. But, for Cal, it’s the first postseason appearance since 2015 and just the second bowl game in the last nine years. Is the fanbase excited, and what does it mean for the program to be playing a game late in December?

boomtho: The fans who are paying attention are excited, although the fan base is definitely not fully energized as it was in the early Jeff Tedford days. There are definitely pragmatic benefits—like extra practice time and the chance to learn more about the young players—but even more than that, it’s one of the traditional milestones you look for early in a coach’s career to ensure the program is on the right path. And it’s worth pointing out that Cal had some important wins—Washington, USC, and BYU—so it wasn’t like Cal knocked off a slate of (only) pushovers.

Nick Kranz: I don’t think there’s a ton of excitement for this game specifically. The hope is that this game will be seen in the future as a kind of a signpost—an example of the progress made and the check marks ticked off as Cal tries to return to national relevance. In 2003, Cal beat Virginia Tech when this particular bowl game was called the Insight Bowl and that crazy 52–49 win is remembered as the game that launched Cal’s 10-win 2004 season. I don’t think anybody is expecting the same type of game or next-season performance, but making and winning a bowl game is a meaningful step forward for where the program is right now.

FOW: The Golden Bears beat Pac 12 Champion Washington this season, nearly upset Wazzou, but lost to Arizona and got blown out by a bad UCLA team. Was that emblematic of a young team experiencing growing pains, or has inconsistency been a concern this season (we know all about that, btw).

boomtho: More than youth, I think the inconsistency was a product of the team’s composition, which was a really strong, solid defense paired with an inconsistent, turnover-prone offense. Cal also went through a lot of QB drama before settling on Chase Garbers as the ultimate starter, but the UCLA and Arizona losses occurred when Brandon McIlwain was still getting significant playing time. McIlwain was very explosive, but also incredibly turnover-prone (four TOs vs. UCLA and four vs. Arizona, including two for Arizona TDs in a game Cal lost by seven).

Nick Kranz: Yeah, it’s pretty much all about the offense. Cal’s defense was wildly consistent—they basically only had one off game against UCLA. Every other time Cal gave up 20+ points, turnovers were the bigger reason why rather than defense. On the other side of the ball, Cal ranged from an offense that couldn’t move the ball but didn’t make mistakes . . . to an offense that couldn’t move the ball but DID make mistakes. As the season went on, the offensive strategy increasingly went cro-magnon conservative to avoid the possibility of turnovers that could ruin another shut-down defensive performance. Thus, in the last five games of the season, the only time anybody involved in a Cal game scored more than 23 total was when Colorado threw two pick-sixes on their first two drives.

FOW: Cal played three different QBs this season, two of whom saw snaps in at least nine games (something TCU fans can also relate to). RS freshman Chase Garbers seems to be the guy, so why so many signal callers? Was it injury related, performance based, or other?

Nick Kranz: This is hard to answer concisely. Ross Bowers started all of 2017 and was the presumed starter all fall. He played just a handful of (admittedly ineffective) series against UNC, was pulled, and was never heard from again. It was announced a few weeks later that he sustained an injury, but it wasn’t announced when that happened or if it was a season-ending injury. A full explanation of that entire saga hasn’t been given.

That left Cal with McIlwain and Garbers—two young, mobile QBs with iffy command of the offense and accuracy issues. McIlwain is a truly electric runner and probably has the stronger arm, which is what led the Cal coaches to give him the bulk of the playing time in losses to Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA. But his turnovers proved disastrous, which brought the less explosive but more trustworthy Garbers back in as starter. The offense didn’t produce more points for Cal with Garbers in charge, but they produced fewer points for the opposition and that was as good as it was going to get this year.

FOW: These are obviously two elite level defenses, meaning whichever offense can stay on the field the longest could win. Cal will turn to Patrick Laird to control the clock with the ground game, it seems - what can you tell us about the bruising senior running back?

boomtho: Laird is patient and a capable receiver out of the backfield—he’s got great hands and is a pretty good route runner—but isn’t the most explosive RB and isn’t a threat to take a long run to the house. He will be able to take advantage of what his OL can provide, but likely not generate a ton more than that. Still, Laird was by far our most dependable and relied-upon RB and I’d expect him to get heavy usage as a send-off for his productive Cal career.

Nick Kranz: He’s a really great story—a former walk-on with legit community service credentials. He’s versatile, rarely makes mistakes, and will typically make the right cuts. He’s also not notably fast and isn’t much of a tackle breaker. If he were supported by a passing game that forced teams to respect the downfield passing game, he could be very productive. But against teams stacking the box, he’s struggled to find consistent space. Still, he’s the least of Cal’s problems on offense and we would love for a program stalwart to get a final game send off he deserves.

FOW: Who are some names on defense that TCU fans should be aware of when watching the Golden Bears on that side of the ball?

boomtho: The two names to know are our stud ILB duo of Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver. They both had 130+ tackles including nine or ten TFL (each!). I can’t say I studied all of college football, but to my eye, they were the single most productive duo in all of college football.

Beyond them, I’d pay attention to safety Ashtyn Davis (who led the team in INTs) and CB Camryn Bynum (who is disruptive and led the team in PBUs).

FOW: What three things need to happen for Cal to beat TCU at the Cheez-It Bowl?

boomtho: This is going to read as a super generic answer, but given Cal’s offensive and turnover struggles, the keys are:

1. Limit turnovers (Cal can live with maybe two, but it’ll be really hard to overcome any more than that)

2. Average 4 YPC and stay ahead of the chains

3. Hit at least two plays of 20 yards

Nick Kranz: Like boomtho said, emphasizing turnovers is cliché, but particularly true for this Cal team. Because Cal’s offense is so unproductive and because Cal’s defense (13th national in turnovers forced) has been so disruptive, Cal really relies on their defense to create opportunities for the offense. Against UNC, UW, USC, and Colorado, it was defensive plays that swung the game in Cal’s favor when the offense did very, very little. Meanwhile, tight games against Arizona, WSU, and Stanford all swung against Cal because the offense coughed the ball up and the defense wasn’t able to make plays of their own.

Cal’s strengths and style work so well to keep the game low-scoring that those singular plays tend to swing things one way or the other.

FOW: What is your prediction for the game?

boomtho: I don’t know TCU very well, but my sense is TCU has a numbers advantage when it comes to disruptive, athletic, and active players. I unfortunately think that difference will shine through and TCU will be able to make just enough defensive plays to win. I’m going with TCU 17, Cal 10.

Nick Kranz: Honestly, I’m much more confident about the under (less than 40!) than who wins what appears to be a toss-up. Let’s say 14–13, TCU.

FOW: What do you expect the Cal Football program to look like when these two teams start their home and home two seasons from now?

Nick Kranz: Well, the good news for TCU is that Cal will be graduating a ton of defensive talent after 2019. Basically the entire secondary and ILB crew will be gone, in addition to a few D-linemen. I do think that the defensive staff deserve the benefit of the doubt and they’ve been recruiting well on that side of the ball, but the D might be merely good rather than elite. Meanwhile, Cal’s offense has been so bad that they’re hitting the JC/transfer trail hard in search of immediate difference makers. If it works, Cal’s offense could be pretty functional. If it fails, Cal will be in deep trouble for class balance reasons. Devon Modster, save us?

Vincent Sheu: Optimistically, Cal will have maintained a Top-25 level defense and built out its depth via stronger recruiting. On the offensive side, Cal should have a multiple-year starter at quarterback (whether Chase Garbers, incoming transfer Devon Modster, suddenly-consistent Brandon McIlwain) and be effective enough on offense to score more than 10 points per game. That should translate into an 8–9 win-level team (6–7 if injuries hit; 10 if we overachieve).

FOW: BONUS: TCU has its Riff Ram chant - which in its own sense, is a bit ridiculous to outsiders. But, that may pale in comparison to the Oski Yell, which manages to work in whiskey, wow, and muckie into its lyrics. So, I have to ask... the hell is it?

Nick Kranz: Sadly, the Oski Yell is something that probably hasn’t actually been used at a game in a decade plus. It’s one of those weird traditions that persists in the memory of older alums and is perhaps preserved by the Cal band . . . but if you polled the student body at large, I doubt you’d find anybody who knows what the hell it is. Much like the Cal Drinking Song, I always assumed that the cheer was a weird combination of turn-of-the-century drunkenness and/or frat inside jokes. But at least the cheer sort of lives on since it gave our mascot his name!

We chatted with CGB as well, be sure to check it out to find out whom Melissa would most like to punch.