Is it just me, or does it feel like a long time since we beat San Diego State? Silly season has been in full force this week, what with the Mack Brown Rose Bowl retrospectives (not that anyone on either program remembers or cares), the resignation of Texas AD Steve Patterson, the mysterious case of the chrome faceguards, and the Malik Jefferson hype storm reaching gale force in Austin. And that doesn't even begin to cover the incredible amount of fate-tempting and curse-inducing we've been doing at CGB all week.
But none of that matters come Saturday. All that matters is Cal vs. Texas. All that matters is a hundred-yard stretch of FieldTurf at Darrell K Royal. All that matters is—no, I promised myself I wouldn't poach Nam's pregame hype thread. Hoo boy do I want to, though. These are exciting times for Cal Football. This is the game we've all had circled on our calendars since...aaand I'm doing it again. Let's get to the preview.
The Story so Far...
For your consideration, a quick comparison between Texas' defense last year and the first two weeks of this season:
Yeah, it hurts to lose six defensive starters, especially when one of them is first round pick DT Malcom Brown. Also gone are Quandre Diggs and Mykelle Thompson in the secondary, as well as LB Jordan Hicks and two time All-Big 12 DE Cedrick Reed. But even with all those pieces to replace, the Longhorns had cause for optimism heading into the season. Charlie Strong is a defensive-minded head coach working alongside his longtime defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. They had success translating their system from Louisville to Texas in year one. And the Longhorns can recruit their way out of pretty much any hole.
But things haven't gone quite according to plan so far. We're still working with small sample sizes here, but the Longhorns defense showed some vulnerability in its first two games. Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire torched the Texas secondary for 313 yards and three touchdowns in week one. They rebounded against Rice, recording three INTs, but were still dramatically outgained by an Owls offense that controlled the ball for nearly 45 minutes. Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of the defensive line, as well as some uncharacteristically poor execution for a Strong-coached team. Will this be the week his defense jells, or will the Bear Raid feast on more than BBQ in Austin?
Starters: Sr #1 Shiro Davis, Sr #99 Desmond Jackson, So #95 Poona Ford, So #40 Naashon Hughes
Malcom Brown's presence will certainly be missed along the line. He led the linemen in Tackles, TFL, sacks, and forced fumbles last year, production which will have to be reproduced by committee in his absence. This is still an experienced unit, as it brings back six upperclassmen who saw significant playing time last year. Expect most of these guys to rotate in at some point, and pay special attention to #98 Hassan Ridgeway at DT, who recorded six sacks in 2014.
Strong will often send out the 3-3-5 set that he had a hand in innovating—and which we've seen from Grambling and SDSU—as well as a more standard 4-3 on early downs. This is an aggressive system that often sends linebackers up to blitz, as well as occasionally dropping up to 6 DBs into coverage. All of that means Jared Goff will have a few new looks to manage as he attempts to pick apart the Longhorns' schemes.
Starters: Sr #19 Peter Jinkens, Fr #46 Malik Jefferson, Fr #35 Edwin Freeman
The youth movement is well underway at linebacker, headlined by true freshman Malik Jefferson. He's living up to his hype on the strength of a team-leading 18 tackles as well as a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Rice. Most of the depth chart at linebacker will be learning on the job, as only Peter Jinkens (eight starts in two years) returns significant experience, and redshirt freshman Edwin Freeman is projected to make his first start this weekend. Jefferson and his fellow underclassmen have certainly shown flashes though: true frosh #44 Breckyn Hager recorded his first interception last week.
Starters: Sr #21 Duke Thomas, So #31 Jason Hall, Jr #14 Dylan Haines, Fr #24 John Bonney
Experience in the secondary comes from Duke Thomas, Dylan Haines, and Jason Hall, with 48 starts between them. This group's pass defense was a strength last season, led by Haines and his four interceptions, but they've been hamstrung so far by the lack of a pass rush up front. Haines and Hall each had interceptions last week, but will have to face a much tougher challenge in the Bear Raid.
I have to think Tony Franklin is salivating as he prepares for this one. Texas DC Vance Bedford, we know for a fact, has some insecurities about how his defense will match up. That said, I'm not convinced that this unit is as bad as they've shown so far. Texas is one of the youngest teams in college football, and they'll improve as the season goes on. Here's hoping we catch them early enough that we can capitalize on some mistakes and sneak out of Texas with a win. My prediction? I lose my voice by halftime.