Those of you who read this column regularly (Hi Mom and Dad!) know that I love to find the bad news lurking in the game notes, the reason to worry, the one guy who torched us last year and who’s due for an even bigger breakout this time around. Not because I like watching it happen, but because it makes for a good storyline. The life of a Cal fan can often feel cyclical; hope leads to concern leads to Christian McCaffrey doing a dance in the end zone, over and over and over. The same enemies seem to recur, as in football as in life. But that’s not always the way things go down. Teams change, storylines shift, and new guys come out of nowhere to haunt our dreams and torch our beloved defenses. It’s like narrative whack-a-mole.
So forget about wheel routes, so many agonizing wheel routes. Forget about Jerrod Heard frolicking hither and thither amongst our defense. Forget about Jared Goff punting four times in one game. That last one doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but gosh, four times? Forget about all of them, because this game won’t look anything like the 45-44 cardiac event that was last year’s match. We may win or we may lose, but we’ll do it in novel and ever more frustrating ways.
The man to thank for that, whichever way it shakes out, will be one Sterlin Gilbert. He’s Texas’ new offensive coordinator, lured away from a brief stint at Tulsa, and he has rebuilt this team from the turf up. Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes? Gone. (Well, not gone. Just not quarterbacks anymore.) College football’s 92nd-ranked offense? Gone. Even Bevo XIV, dear sweet Bevo XIV? Gone, and may he rest in bovine peace.
But Gilbert has brought some goodies of his own. The Art Briles disciple has been honing his variant of the power spread scheme since 2005, and has been climbing the coaching ladder with ever-increasing speed and success. Last year took his talents from Bowling Green to Tulsa, where he coached the nation’s 13th most productive offense. So when Charlie Strong needed an offensive mind to complement his defensive schemes—and when his first choice, TCU’s Sonny Combie turned him down—he moved swiftly to pick up Gilbert.
Gilbert’s power spread (sometimes known as the veer and shoot) employs many of the same principles as the Air Raid. Get the wide receivers out in space, move quickly, and let them win their matchups. But it also emphasizes the run-pass option; defenders can’t cheat up to stop the run if they always have to worry about the play-action pass. And with the constant stream of blue chip talent into the Texas locker room, an undisciplined defense will be burned by the slightest mistake. Through two games, it’s clear that the scheme can work.
Watch how the running back is involved in almost every play offensive against Notre Dame. Nearly every pass uses play action, which forces the defense to defend against the possibility of the run while the quarterback looks for open receivers. He’ll pull the ball back if he has a short pass available, or he’ll look deep to one of his streaking WRs. Given the time to operate, it’s a deadly combination.
This brings us to Shane Buchele, the freshman quarterback who displaced both of last year’s starters...and then beat Notre Dame in his first appearance. Just like in the Bear Raid, it’s important to have a QB who knows the scheme and Buchele clearly does. He’s got good awareness of the defense, and he’s scary accurate downfield. Just as the play action forces defenses to respect the run, his touch on his long throws will force Cal’s DBs to be ready for the pass on every down. One consideration: this will be Buchele’s first ever college road game after home matchups with Notre Dame and UTEP. He didn’t seem fazed against a top-15 Notre Dame team, but could he lose his composure in Berkeley?
And if you’re worried about the way the Bears were victimized by the QB scramble last year, don’t be. Buchele can’t run the ball anything like Jerrod Heard. That said, the Longhorns offense has another secret weapon that could give the Bears fits. Tyrone Swoopes, who split time at QB last year but didn’t play against Cal, will come in for something called the 18 Wheeler package. He’ll line up in the shotgun, usually with another RB, and then pound the ball into the defensive line. What he lacks in throwing ability (if you watch the highlights above, you’ll see it quickly), he makes up for with 249 pounds of that dude can run. Utilized to great effect against Notre Dame, Swoopes makes for a dangerous power option in the red zone. Heaven forbid he starts completing some of his passes too, because then we’ll be in a very familiar sort of trouble.
Nobody has really differentiated themselves so far as Buchele’s preferred target, but maybe that’s not great news for the Bears. That means Cal’s DBs must pay equal attention to weapons like John Burt, Jacorey Warrick, and Armanti Foreman. Daje Johnson, who burned the Bears for 145 yards in last year’s game, is gone, but the Longhorns have plenty of talent to replace him. Of potential concern to Cal fans is that one such talent might be Jerrod Heard, who has adjusted well in his move from QB to wideout. Let’s not let him get the ball in space if we can avoid it, yes?
Texas loses Jonathan Gray, who led the team in carries last year. But that doesn’t mean much when you have quarterback/bulldozer hybrid Tyrone Swoopes coming up from behind. And while the 18 Wheeler is refueling (do you think Texas fans are sick of truck puns yet?), they have the backfield tandem of D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III. They’re a true RB duo too, with contrasting skill sets and everything! Warren is the big, slow dude you’ll see most often, while Foreman is supposed to be a more balanced, nuanced runner.
Mercifully, neither one is Donnel Pumphrey. But both are solid backs who fit in Gilbert’s scheme. All he needs them to do is make the defense believe they’re good for five yards per carry, and they’ve already opened up the passing game for their QB. They’ve performed a little bit under that mark so far, but it’s enough to do what coaches call “keeping the defense honest.”
Texas returns three linemen who started 10 or more games last year. Right tackle Kent Perkins, the unit’s only senior, moves into the guard spot, and junior Brandon Hodges slides into his place. The left side is made up of sophomores Patrick Vahe and Connor Williams, leaving true freshman Zach Shackelford to play center. So far the unit has allowed just three sacks (good) and helped their running backs to an average of 3.8 ypc (less good). I’d say maybe Cal’s defense can help them with that second one, but that might be unnecessarily piling on.
So there you have it. In my estimation, the Bears are looking at an offense with solid if unremarkable skill players, an high-ceiling QB, and a scheme that makes them all more dangerous than they would otherwise be. This isn’t quite one of those Oregon teams that runs a fast spread scheme and has ridiculous, Nike-clad playmakers, but it does present the same type of challenge: Cal HAS to play disciplined defense if it wants to contend in this one. Texas won’t make the same sort of mistakes Hawaii and SDSU did. And if that made you anxiously chew on whatever fingernail fragments remain after Saturday, you’re not alone. Let’s see if the Bears can execute.