I have been looking forward to this game ever since that historically ugly bowl game in 2018. I was at the game, and although I usually feel that typical Cal football depression after a loss, I actually felt a sense of tranquility. While I was a little sad that Cal lost, it was overcome by a feeling of astonishment at what I had just witnessed: history. Much like Oski, the game was ugly… yet beautiful. I had a great time at the game and only pleasant experiences with TCU fans (unlike, say, the drunk heckling I experienced after the loss to Texas in the 2011 Holiday Bowl), where we shared a mutual feeling of “what the hell was that, can you believe what just happened?”
As I went through TCU’s 2020 season, I felt a similar, strange sense of affinity for TCU. As I finished the last game, it hit me why I found myself pulling for TCU: I was watching the mirror image of Cal. Again.
They have a dual-threat QB who can throw dimes, but sometimes struggles with consistency. He’s an explosive athlete that can score through the air or on his feet. A similarly youthful offensive line, still looking to improve, which could benefit from some depth. A stable of both powerful and shifty running backs. Good wide receivers with clearly defined roles. Plenty of youth and talent at tight end (even a former Cal recruit, tight end D’Andre “DJ” Rogers). An improving defensive line, but a team mainly known for the talent in the secondary. A coach renowned for his defense and defensive adjustments. A team that could beat a top-ranked team, and lose to a team worse than them the following week. I was watching a Cal game and didn’t even realize it.
Hopefully this year’s game is a lot less ugly than the one in 2018, although I wouldn’t mind one bit if it was another beautiful disaster. Both teams have lost defensive talent to the NFL and improved on offense, so I am pretty sure there will be more points in this one, at least. But this matchup features some of the same players as last time, which was nice to see.
Let’s start with the offensive star of the show, Chase Garbe—err, Max Duggan.
The star of the show here is clearly the quarterback, Max Duggan. Let this stat blow your mind: he led TCU last year in both passing and rushing yards. Although their run game improved in the second half of last season, Duggan would break off so many 80+ yard runs that he ended up the rush leader for the team (not to mention that the running back carries were shared among 3 or 4 RBs).
There’s a lot to like about Duggan. The most obvious, besides his rushing ability, is his mobility in the pocket. Actually, my favorite quality is that he is absolutely fearless, even to his own detriment. He will stand in the pocket and sling it, even if he’s about to be hit by a semi-truck. Taking a number of big hits definitely led to some injury concerns.
He does a good job going through his progressions, remaining patient, and waiting for plays to develop. Pressure doesn’t get to him, because he doesn’t care if you hit him, and if no one is open he can just run it himself.
If the play isn’t there, he can adjust on the fly and run it himself.
Duggan definitely has some arm strength:
He also displays some nice accuracy:
Max Duggan is a dangerous runner. He has speed, nice vision (particularly for a QB), and he is not afraid to make contact on a run. Take this one for example:
He’s definitely a great runner. How many quarterbacks can make a cut like this?:
He’s a homerun threat on his feet:
And he’s clutch. Here’s the game winner over #9 Texas (basically the USC of the Big 12; very talented but perennially overrated):
TCU will run a lot of zone reads, maybe hand it off to the RB, maybe the QB keeps it, maybe they pitch it to someone on the jet sweep, just mixing it up to try to confuse the defense. And although Duggan is a great runner himself, TCU has definitely found their running back of the future.
TCU’s starting running back is just entering his second year, RB Zach Evans. He is TCU’s first and only 5-star recruit, although it’s definitely a strange story of how he ended up at TCU.
Zach Evans, true to his 5-star ranking, is an elite athlete. He possesses elite speed, shiftiness, and even power. He’s more likely to juke a defender, but he can run over one, too.
Evans just moves at a different speed than most players. In the following clip, the only reason anyone could catch him was because he slowed to make a cut to juke the defender in front of him:
But as mentioned previously, Evans can make contact and keep his legs moving, the way a power RB would. Here Evans just bounces off tacklers on his way to a 75 yard rushing touchdown:
Evans started coming into his own in the later half of the season, and I would expect to see him as the feature back going forward. Backing up Evans is another player just entering his second year, RB Kendre Miller. Miller runs a bit taller than Evans, but he also possesses a 6th gear:
Also in the stable is Emari Demercado (who we saw in that Cheez-It Bowl!), an explosive runner with good vision, but also a strong lower half and willingness to make contact:
Like Cal, TCU has a large number of very capable backs, each with different skillsets. Zach Evans may just be the most talented of the group, and is clearly on an NFL trajectory. He obviously has the highest ceiling, and he still has plenty of room to grow. Cal’s defense will definitely have their hands full with the TCU run game between Duggan and Evans.
Duggan’s top target is WR Quentin Johnston. He’s a wiry 6’4” receiver with speed and a big frame. He has good ball-tracking skills and can go up and make contested catches.
TCU also has a prolific trio of 5’9” experienced (senior) speedy gadget receivers: Derius Davis, Taye Barber, and JD Spielman. Davis and Barber have been meaningful playtime in the TCU offense since they were freshmen, but JD Spielman is the electric transfer from Nebraska, where he had a number of punt return and kick return touchdowns.
Both Derius Davis and Taye Barber can be seen running a lot of jet motion sweeps due to their speed:
But both players will rely on speed to get separation:
The receivers are capable, but I expect Cal will have more trouble slowing down TCU’s run game than the pass.
Prior to the Nevada game, I really thought this would be a back-and-forth slugfest. Both teams have similar styles of offense and defense, but after watching Cal struggle to put up points against a pedestrian Nevada defense, Cal is really going to need Ole Miss Garbers to show up if the Cal offense is to keep up with the likes of Duggan and Co. At the very least, the TCU offense will let us know exactly where our defense stands this year.