If last week was any indication of Cal’s commitment to the run, the Bears could be in for a long night when they host Charlie Strong’s defense this Saturday. In what is surprisingly unfortunate news for Cal, the Longhorns vaunted defense was extremely susceptible to the run last season, giving up nearly 220 yards per game on the ground. If anyone was looking for a quintessential example of that ineptitude, look no further than Khalfani Muhammed’s 74 yard burst during last year’s contest.
Why is this exactly bad news for Cal? The answer is two-fold. The 2016 Longhorns return a much more experienced defensive unit which is a hell of a lot less likely to be dominated by Cal’s experienced offensive line. Furthermore, last week Cal completely abandoned their run game to the tune of a 72 to 19 pass to run distribution against the smaller, less athletic San Diego State Aztecs. Needless to say, that type of imbalance in the offense this Saturday will not lead to a pretty result for those donning blue and gold in Berkeley.
Charlie Strong’s team rolls into northern California looking nothing like the team the Bears faced last September in Austin. Perhaps nobody said it better than ESPN’s Joe Tessitore, Texas is back folks and that poses a major problem for Cal’s offense this Saturday. Let’s take a deeper look at each of the Longhorns key defensive units below:
The Longhorns play a 4-2-5 and if that sounds familiar to you, it should, as the Aztecs play a similar style of defense. In the more traditional 3-3-5, you sacrifice some of your strength for speed and add in a tremendous amount of confusion each play. Not with Texas. The Longhorns were the recruiting class darlings last year, nabbing some of the most athletic and highly touted recruits in the country. As if that wasn’t enough, they directly addressed one of their positions of need which was on the defensive line. Jordan Elliot, Chris Daniels, Andrew Fitzgerald, and De’Andre Christmas-Giles all make up significant depth for the Longhorns while providing a noticeable uptick in size that was absent last year. Furthermore, they have found unique ways to utilize Breckyn Hager in blitz packages to bring additional pressure on the quarterback.
The saving grace for the Bears is that this particular match-up is their most obvious advantage against Texas (on paper at least). The Bears offensive line is their most experienced unit and they did prove they can run the ball on a top tier defense last week when called on to do so. The aforementioned Texas freshman haven’t had a chance to entirely break through the depth chart and from a size comparison alone, Cal has the upper hand.
Finally, if you find yourself thinking if Cal has the size advantage in the trenches, they should be able to pass block as well, do yourself a favor and stop right there. Texas was damn near elite in their ability to sack the quarterback last year, narrowly missing the top 15 in adjusted sack rate for both standard and passing downs.
Simply put, this match-up perhaps more than any other can help tilt the game in each team’s favor. If Cal can find a groove running the football early, it makes their entire offensive game plan easier. If Texas is stout on the ground, than Davis Webb will have to pick apart double coverage for the Bears to be effective through the air.
We could spend the entire segment talking about Malik Jefferson who took home All-American honors as a true freshman last season. He is an absolute stud, a true difference maker, who should help the Longhorns take a solid step forward again this year. Anthony Wheeler is also an immense talent at weak-side linebacker who racked up 29 tackles as a backup last season. The linebackers will be responsible for helping boost the Longhorns pass rush and forcing Davis Webb to throw into their secondary which might be the strongest position for Charlie Strong’s team.
The biggest key for the linebacker core of Texas is experience. Their two key contributors, Jefferson and Wheeler, are in their sophomore campaigns with a tremendous amount of game experience after their freshman year. If they can prevent Vic Enwere and the Cal running backs from breaking into the secondary, it could be extremely hard for the Bears to have the quick strike threat the offense found frequently last year.
As mentioned before, Charlie Strong’s secondary is possibly the best and deepest unit for the Longhorns. Purely from a depth perspective, the Longhorns look set in the secondary for years to come.
Duke Thomas was a significant loss that shouldn’t be understated but it is hard to lose too much sleep when looking at who is replacing him. Davante Davis, Sheroid Evans and Holton Hill are all premier players who seem prepared to fill the void, if any, left by Thomas.
Advanced stats loved the Longhorns secondary this past season where they finished in the top 20 in passing S&P+ and that was with a defense filled with freshman. To make things worse for Cal, Texas is filling their gaps with elite talent from a plethora of high quality recruits over the past two seasons. They are not only more experienced but poised to take this defense back to the high watermark set in the 2014 season, where Texas found its way into the top 25 in total defense.
There isn’t an easy way to look at this as a Cal fan. On the one hand, Charlie Strong’s defense has still shown tendencies to give up big plays and continues to struggle against the run. However, Texas is a much more talented team than San Diego State and if last week is any indication of what is to come, the game might get out of hand quickly. The Bears have to establish a strong running game and open up holes similarly to what Notre Dame did in Austin in order to keep pace with the high octane Texas offense. As Saturday quickly approaches, be prepared to take the over, grab your popcorn and enjoy the show.