Cal Football: Q&A on the great Cheez-It Bowl rematch with TCU
Just when you thought you were safe—Cheez-Its have arrived
Less than three years ago, we were just a group of naïve children preparing for the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl—unaware of what we were on the cusp of beholding.
That was when we first connected with the equally hilarious and knowledgeable Melissa Triebwasser of TCU’ blog Frogs O’ War; she answered some of our questions (where she joined in with the rest of the universe in wanting to punch Art Briles in the face), we answered some of theirs, and she casually and presciently said she was “[l]ooking forward to a (fun?) game”.
“Fun” is a little iffy when describing that hot mess of a game that instantly became a legend of the ages, but there was no one else in the TCU-niverse better-suited to break down the upcoming Cheez-It Bowl II: The Re-Cheez-ening than Melissa.
1. Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?
I am going to give you two: Zach Evans (sophomore running back) and Quentin Johnston (sophomore wide receiver). These are two elite talents—blue-chip recruits who stand out on a football field no matter the competition. QJ was targeted eight times in the first half Saturday, so be ready to hear his name a lot on Saturday afternoon. Zach sat the first two series in the opener as a consequence for a minor team infraction regarding NIL, but when he was in the game, he was arguably the best player on the field. TCU fans are really excited about both of these guys as they approach year two.
2. Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?
The TCU defense is pretty loaded with talented guys, but the guy who is going to play a big part in determining how good that side of the ball plays on Saturday is defensive end Ochaun Mathis. When the Frogs pressure the QB, their defense tends to be elite. When they don't, it struggles. And given the current state of the depth at the cornerback position, spending a lot of time greeting Chase Garbers is going to go a long way in corralling the Cal offense. As a bonus, Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson is a preseason All-American at corner and the nephew of TCU great LaDainian Tomlinson. He is an elite cover corner and picked up his first INT of the season in game one. He's fun.
3. Who's one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for you?
JD Spielman. The former Nebraska star was hurt for most of 2020, but is an elite player in the return game and is a guy who can make people miss at receiver. He showcased some serious wiggle in scoring his first touchdown as a Horned Frog on Saturday night and is a guy who can make things really easy on QB Max Duggan.
4. What does TCU need to do to win the game?
Do the right things well. If they don't turn the ball over on offense, execute in the red zone, and play their lanes on defense, I think the Frogs have a significant advantage in all three phases of the game at home. Cal is no slouch—especially on defense—but I think the Frogs can outscore the Bears' offense behind Duggan and some elite skill position players and the defense is good enough to give Garbers fits.
5. What does Cal need to do to win the game?
Get to Duggan. The offensive line is the biggest question mark on this team and didn't get much of a test from Duquesne. If the Bears can get in the backfield and pressure Max, they can put the Frogs in some bad spots and some long fields. If you're going to exploit TCU on defense, it's going to be by attacking corner CJ Ceasar, who got beat badly on two long balls Saturday night. I wouldn't throw at THT, but I would absolutely challenge CJ. Now, if Noah Daniels plays, all bets are off. He's been dealing with some off-the-field (all signs point to grades) issues, but he's a first-round talent at CB. If he and THT are on the field together, the passing game can be mitigated.
6. How do you see the game going?
I think the Frogs struggle on their first couple of drives, settling for field goals. But the defense forces a turnover that leaves Duggan with a short field and into the end zone—and TCU is off to the races from there. My score prediction is 33–17 with the Bears getting into the end zone twice late.
7. Max Duggan has had quite a bit of inconsistency as your starting QB. What are his biggest strengths and what do you think is holding him back from realizing his full potential?
Max has been through it, to be honest. He wasn't supposed to start as a true freshman, but got thrown into the fold behind a bad offensive line and looked the part of a first-year QB who was splitting reps with the first unit for most of the year. He lost his sophomore offseason to COVID and his second fall camp to a heart issue that nearly ended his career. With virtually no practice before he first stepped on the field, he acquitted himself admirably last season, finding his groove down the stretch and putting together some really nice games against Oklahoma State and La Tech. Now, with his first real offseason as QB1 behind him, Duggan doesn't get the benefit of the doubt and he knows it. He put in the work this offseason and we all really liked what we saw, but Cal isn't Duquesne and we will be far more critical Saturday afternoon.
Max is an elite running QB, but has to do a better job making his reads before he takes off. He throws a beautiful deep ball and has great chemistry with QJ, but his accuracy was at times suspect. He was failed by poor offensive line play his first two seasons, but has the best group in front of him in his career. Plus, TCU seems to be running a system this year that fits his strengths and puts him in the best position to succeed in 2021.
8. TCU has a very balanced running attack—what does each RB bring to the table and how do you think they’ll be used against Cal?
I love every single one of these running backs and I expect all four to play Saturday afternoon. Zach Evans will get the start and he is exactly what you expect a 5* RB to be. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, and he takes no ish on the football field. He is an elite player at the position and if he put some minor fumbling issues behind him, he will challenge Bijan Robinson and Breece Hall for best running back in the conference. Kendre Miller is more of a true speed back and a guy who can really make people miss and he plays with some real attitude that I love. Emeri Demercado is the best blocking back and a good receiver and the veteran who doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's maybe not as talented as the rest of the crew, but he's a really solid player and Patterson loves him. Lastly is Daimarqua Foster, who has redwood tree trunks for thighs. He just sucks to tackle. Coming off of a significant injury, he hasn't regained his explosiveness yet, but he's a talented dude in his own right. I would be remiss to not mention Duggan as an elite runner as well; he led the team in rushing in 2020—which is not great!—and is really dangerous as a runner. I bet we see him with at least four or five designed runs this weekend.
I am really interested to see what talent vs. talent looks like Saturday. The Cal defense is so stout against the run and TCU, in theory, should be really strong running the ball. I still worry about the offensive line's run blocking, but if you can find some space for these guys, they can really make things happen in the open field.
9. TCU has a new playcaller in Doug Meacham, what is his offensive philosophy like and did he show signs of how he wants to attack this season in his FCS warmup?
Bringing back Meach to replace Cumbie has looked like a home run early, but we didn't really learn a ton against Duquesne. What I saw that I liked was a willingness to throw on first down, a lot of pre-snap motion, and a lot of play-action. Meacham, alongside Jerry Kill and Tim Beck as offensive analysts, seem committed to exploiting the strengths of their best players—and you couldn't count on Cumbie to do that. We saw a lot of shotgun, a lot of pistol, and even a few snaps under center. There are some varied concepts that look like they will be a lot of fun this fall. As our dear friend Parker (@statsowar) said on Twitter, Doug is "full-assing the Air Raid" and I am here for it.
10. With the loss of defensive stud LB Garret Wallow, how do you feel about the current state of the linebacker corps?
Dee Winters is an outstanding player who looks primed to take over Wallow's position both on the field and in the locker room. He was excellent Saturday night, leading the team in tackles with seven—and he didn't play a full four quarters. Next to him, Wyatt Harris and Jamoi Hodge are battling for the starting spot, but Hodge was much better on the field Saturday night. I feel really good about Winters and Hodge and Harris is a more than solid back-up, but behind them, depth is a concern. Former five star Shad Banks—who was a wide receiver at A&M in the spring but is suiting up at LB at TCU this fall—is full of promise; but as a true freshman, Patterson said he has to learn which direction to go still. I would not be surprised if he's either starting games or playing significant snaps by late October though—he's just that talented. After him? I don't know that I can name another LB on the roster.
11. Any thoughts on former Cal TE recruit D'Andre "DJ" Rogers?
So, talent? Through the roof. But some of the off-the-field stuff left me with some questions. We didn't see Rogers on the field Saturday—not sure if he was dinged up or what. Patterson did tell us that he was the only guy to test positive for COVID during fall camp, but pretty sure he was off that list by the time gameday rolled around. The Frogs are really excited about Geor’Quarius Spivey and true freshman Jaspar Lott, so DJ is currently third on the depth chart at Y receiver. I am very interested to see how TCU plans to use him and if he will see the field this fall or be a redshirt.
12. What is the likelihood we’ll have Cheese-Int Bowl Part II?
Hopefully zero. Not because it wasn't the greatest game ever played, but if we are going to a fifth-string QB who can't move one of his feet, the wheels have really come off. I could see Zach Evans pulling a Sewo Olonilua though and putting his team on his back with a huge performance.
13. Whom do you most want to punch in the face?
Can I say every single person who thinks taking horse dewormer instead of listening to actual medical professionals and receiving a free, readily available vaccine that is a modern medical miracle? The only silver lining is apparently Ivermectin makes you sterile, so at least they won't be reproducing.
Our many thanks to Melissa for sharing her deep knowledge of the Horned Frogs and for always having her fist cocked in the right direction; if you happen to be on the garbage platform that is Twitter, follow her at @TheCoachMelissa. Check out Frogs O’ War for their stellar coverage of TCU and our upcoming game and dust off your old CGB accounts because the other half of this Q&A (featuring the great and powerful christopher_h) is over there. I’d strongly recommend you check it out if for no other reason than for christopher_h’s most cherished and most urinal-based memory of the game.