We knew this one was going to come down to one or two plays.
Well, we thought. But we never could have anticipated the way those plays would come.
The Cal Golden Bears made the first one, intercepting Grayson Muehlstein with 5:02 remaining in the first quarter on TCU’s 34. One 30-yard completion and a four yard QB-keeper later, Cal was on top 7-0, scoring easily with the short field.
Turnovers had been the story for TCU all season long. When the Frogs won the turnover battle, they won the game. When they didn’t... well, they were 6-6 coming into the game for a reason.
TCU got a turnover of their own after a quick three-and-out by the Frogs’ offense when Julius Lewis picked off Chase Garbers on a pass thrown behind him. The ensuing drive featured Grayson Muehlstein’s first passing yard of the game, but ended in the drunkest play in bowl game history when a tripe pass - Muehlstein to Reagor to Muehlstein - ended in the second Cal interception of the game. Thankfully, TCU got it back when Niko Small picked off Garbers in the end zone, but... well... the ensuing drive ended in a, you guessed it, interception.
The Frogs actually moved the ball on their final drive of the first half, basically on the shoulders of Sewo Olonilua. But when the big guy needed a break after ripping off a 25 yard run, the offense fell apart, turning a fourth and two into a 12 yard loss and burning their best opportunity at points to that point in the game.
Trailing 7-0 coming out of the break, the Frogs got the ball first, but it was more of the same for Muehlstein and the impotent TCU offense - as Grayson missed an open Jaelan Austin deep and threw his fourth interception of the night (on another illegal forward pass, natch). The Golden Bears countered with a QB change, brining in Chase Forrest, who picked up a few yards before failing to convert on third and medium.
The Frogs refused to pass the ball on their ensuing possession, wisely, but the drive stalled when Muehlstein couldn’t pick up a couple of inches on a quick snap sneak. On the drive, both Sewo Olonilua and Emari Demercado picked up yardage in chunks, and despite Adam Nunez pinning the Golden Bears inside the five, it was a disappointing play call in the moment.
It almost was.
After stuffing back to back run plays, the TCU defense gave up just their second big play of the night, letting California receiver Jordan Duncan break free along the sideline for a juggling 33 yard catch on third and six. But the defense stepped up again, forcing a punt on fourth and six, allowing the Frogs - well, Jalen Reagor - to make the first big play of the night for TCU. Reagor, who had just four yards going into that moment, picked up 58 on the return, taking the 47 yard punt all the way to the Cal 33.
From there, it was all Sewo, as the big running back bulled his way to the one yard line from 14 yards out, reaching the ball across the goal line one play later to tie things up at seven. Olonilua, who went over the century mark for the first time in his career Wednesday, was practically the entire TCU offense in the second half, as he combined with Jalen Reagor to pick up move the chains on offense and special teams when everything else seemed to fail.
Despite a tie game, the most exciting moment for some came in the fourth quarter, not on a scoring play, but when highly-touted freshman QB Justin Rogers finally took the field for the Horned Frogs. After Grayson Muehlstein took a hard hit that sent him to the locker room, Rogers made his debut for the Frogs on the ensuing series. Rogers’ initial drive was a three and out, but he showed a little escapability and completed a pass, showing some positive signs in his first action. It would be his only series, though, as the Mule would return on the ensuing drive, after the EIGHTH interception of the evening, this one by Vernon Scott off of Chase Forrest.
Though hampered and unable to execute the zone read plays that had been relatively effective for the Frogs, Mule battled, and helped give TCU the opportunity to win. But it would have to come in OT after Cole Bunce missed a potential game-winner from 44 as time expired.
Cal had the ball first, but the game’s ninth interception took away their scoring opportunity, as Jawaun Johnson stepped in front of Forrest’s pass and returned it nearly to paydirt, getting tackled at the ten. A sideline interference call negated the return anyway, and cost TCU 15 yards on their next possession, but the grit and grind of Sewo and Demercado would not be denied. A nine play, 30 yard drive - all but four yards of it on the ground - gave Jonathan Song an opportunity to win it for TCU, and the 27 yard kick was true.
Sewo Olonilua was named the game’s MVP after his 32 carry, 194 yard effort, including the night’s only TCU touchdown. He was the majority of the Frogs’ offense, as Muehlstein was just 7-20 for 27 yards through the air. It was the lowest passing yardage game of the Gary Patterson era, but the defensive effort was enough - Cal had just 264 yards on the night and the lone score.
This wasn’t the best season of Gary Patterson’s career, but he said after the game that it would be one of the most memorable. “So I’ve been proud of the way they’ve grown up, the people that have had to step up. And, you know, their legacy going out, always remember, this will be one of those seasons you’ll remember as much as the Rose Bowl year because of what these guys had to go through and everything that they had to put up with and fought back to get to a winning season. That’s hard to do.”
It is indeed. But they did it. And it will forever be a Cheez-It to remember.