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Cheez-It Bowl Preview and Prediction: TCU vs. Cal

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Texas Christian

It’s time to take a look at the Big 12 football bowl games. Let’s head to Arizona for a TCU vs. Cal preview and prediction for the Cheez-It Bowl.

Game info

8:00 p.m. Central Time, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2018, Chase Field, Phoenix, Arizona

TV: ESPN ()Jason Benetti, Kelly Stouffer, Olivia Harlan Dekker)

Radio: WBAP 820 AM, KTCU 88.7 FM (Brian Estridge); Cal Radio, KGO 810 AM; SiriusXM 81

Fun Fact: TCU and Cal are meeting for the first time on the gridiron. The Horned Frogs and Golden Bears have a home-and-home series scheduled for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The first game will be in Berkeley. TCU is 6-0 against Pac-12 opponents under Patterson.

 

Key players

Cal

RB Patrick Laird

Laird was a Burlsworth Trophy finalist and needs just 68 rushing yards in the game to become the third player in Cal history to rush for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons, joining Marshawn Lynch and Russell White. The former walk-on is averaging nearly 80 rushing yards per game and has five rushing touchdowns on the season.

LB Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver

These two have been the engine that runs the Bears’ defense. They are Cal’s leading tacklers this season with 143 for Weaver and 133 for Kunaszyk. The duo’s 276 tackles are the most ever recorded by a Cal duo in school single-season history. The two ranked second and third, respectively, in the Pac-12 in total tackles. They also have a combined 20.5 tackles for loss.

TCU

WR Jalen Reagor

Reagor has his hands full going up against a very good pass defense, but he will be a difference maker in this game if TCU is going to get some points on the board. He tops TCU with 72 receptions for 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns. The 1,061 yards rank second for a season in TCU history (Josh Doctson, 1,327, 2015). He’s caught a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games and in last month’s win over Oklahoma State became the first Big 12 wide receiver to ever rack up more than 100 receiving yards and 90 rushing yards in a game.

DE Ben Banogu

Bangou was the Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and while he didn’t quite live up to that hype, he was still a First-Team All-Big 12 player and finished tied for fourth in the Big 12 in sacks (7.5) and was second in tackles for loss (17.0). He improved in conference play, finishing third and first in those two categories, respectively. Cal’s offensive line is not considered its strength, which could mean a big night for Banogu.

 

Key storylines

Cal 

Cal has recently been known for its offense, but this year it’s the defense that has carried this team to bowl eligibility. The Bears are in the top 10 in the country, and lead the Pac-12 with 17 interceptions and have forced a Pac-12-best 24 turnovers, while also leading the conference with five defensive touchdowns. Conversely, TCU has struggled in the turnover department this season, finishing the year -5 in turnover margin, which ranks seventh in the Big 12. Now, they get to face quarterback Grayson Muehlstein, who has started one game during his career, and it came in the final game of this season for the senior. He played well against Oklahoma State in a win, finishing 16 of 25 for 180 passing yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and 47 rushing yards. But he’s still incredibly inexperienced and will be going up against a solid defense.

TCU

Points will be at a premium in this game, so the Horned Frogs will need to take advantage of every opportunity they can going up against the top-scoring defense in the Pac-12 with an inexperienced quarterback. That means TCU should try to establish the running game with Sewo Olonilua and Emari Demercado. Darius Anderson is expected to be out again, so it’s up to these two to carry the load, oh, and Jalen Reagor, who had 121 rushing yards against Oklahoma State in the final game of the regular season. TCU has the worst red zone offense in the Big 12, which means any chance to get some points on the board will be critical for this team.

Prediction: TCU 20, Cal 17. I don’t see a ton of points being scored in this game considering that both teams have a much better defense than offense. Considering TCU has faced some of the best offense in America, it’s defense has been that good. Despite five starters and numerous others sidelined by injury, and having faced five of the nation’s top-16 offenses, TCU ranks No. 1 in the Big 12 in total defense (344.4 yards per game). Also, you give me Gary Patterson with nearly a month to prepare for you and I’ll take him in just about any game. Patterson has won three of his past four bowl games with the Horned Frogs, while Cal HC Justin Wilcox has never been the head coach in one. I think that plays a role in these awkwardly-timed bowl games. It won’t be pretty, but TCU walks away victorious.

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