Football

Cal Game Preview: Bear Scat(ttered) Thoughts

Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Charlie Strong. (Will Gallagher/IT)

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I love bears. They’re clever, powerful, opportunistic, lovable and terrifying creatures. I’m an outdoor enthusiast and in places like Alaska and Montana, I’ve encountered dozens in the wild at distances as close as thirty feet.

Mostly black bears, thank God.

Seeing fresh, steaming bear scat on a quiet trail in brown bear country is a heart rate modifier. Seeing that bear moments later quietly evaluating you is a reminder of where we sit in the food chain when your best weapon is sarcasm and a utility knife.

In Alaska, I encountered several fisherman catching the end of the September salmon run. All of them had .357s or .45s mounted on their hips. When I told one that I felt naked hiking around without a sidearm, he laughed and said,”You got it wrong. If a brown bear charges, this is for me to put in my mouth so I don’t suffer as much.”

I don’t think Texas is going to suffer much in Berkeley if we can avoid shooting ourselves.

THE CAL DEFENSE

The default fan criticism for any bad defense is that “the players are all soft.” Sometimes that’s true. It’s usually not.

More often than not, bad defense results from athletic, experiential and schematic deficits, not a lack of character or physical toughness. A platoon of Navy Seals is tough as nails. Put them in pads on a football field with Texas and softness won’t be the reason we rack up 850 yards of offense.

I don’t know if Cal is soft, but I do know after watching them against Hawaii and San Diego State that:

  • They lack quickness and power in their front 7. It’s a basic athletic deficit. I don’t think Cal evaluates athletes well on the defensive side of the ball. They’re fine straight up, but get them to move and it gets ugly
  • The reason SDSU’s RB set the Aztec single game rushing mark (over Marshall Faulk, no less) was because he got some clean initial holes and then used superior quickness and change of direction to turn six yard gains into sixteen and sixty yard jaunts
  • Their linebacker corps doesn’t get solid run fits. They’re not Tim Cole level gaffes, but they don’t seem to consistently understand their gap responsibilities
  • Their DBs are OK. They seem overly concerned about helping in the running game and this bleeds into the passing game
  • They don’t get pressure without blitzing.

The upshot of all of this is that we should get some nice looks across the board. I wish Kirk Johnson were healthy because he’d drop 100 yards on Cal on 10 carries as our change-up back.

D’onta Foreman’s ability to make decisive cuts should serve him well in this contest. I also like the potential for Tyroneasaurus on the power sweep where Foreman and Beck lead block and we force their linebackers to fill on the move.

Outside, Cal will certainly have trouble matching up if they gang up on the run and Buechele continues his ball placement exhibition.

Texas will score plenty with even average execution. We’ll be in the 40s if we keep offensive penalties <3 and turnovers <1.

 

Davis Webb. (courtesy of Cal athletics)
Davis Webb. (courtesy of Cal athletics)

THE CAL OFFENSE

Davis Webb is a Bear Raid prototype – 6-foot-5, 230, live arm, surprising mobility, can comfortably throw NFL routes and has solid accuracy. When he’s pressured, he’s a completely different animal. He’ll throw the ball out blindly to save a hit or sack. Goff accepted hits for big plays downfield. Webb hasn’t shown that yet.

While he certainly has faults, his head coach isn’t setting him up for optimal success.

Sonny Dykes has a Kliff Kingsbury problem. He’s so infatuated with the possibilities of the passing game that he ignores the Cal running game to the offense’s detriment. Cal best RB’s Enwere and Muhammad are nice complementary backs (Enwere is the power guy, Muhammad is the speed guy) and they’ve combined in two games for 33 carries, 246 yards, a 7.5 per carry average, with a longest run of 40 yards.

Let’s consider that again…

They’re averaging 7.5 yard per pop with a longest of 40. Take away their longest run and they’re still at 6.4 yards per carry. And they only have 33 combined carries over two games despite consistent success running the ball.

They’ve also squandered 17 carries for 57 yards to Tre Watson. Who isn’t good.

Cal led the entire game against Hawaii and it was a single score game against San Diego State for 55 minutes. There’s no tactical reason to abandon the run.

Cal’s O whipped the Texas defense last year because they ran for 280 yards (Muhammad and Enwere combined for 26 carries, 237 yards, 3 TDs, 9.1 yards per carry, WTF). They set Goff up for easy throws. Given our capacity for giving up X play rushing touchdowns (runs greater than 20 yards) against ND and UTEP, there’s no reason for Cal not to run the ball. Particularly if it slows our pass rush.

If Dykes doesn’t find a way to create respect for the run, Texas is going to take out the run pluggers, put in our pass rushers, load up in the secondary and start turnover hunting.

Holton Hill and Davante Davis during the win in Waco. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Holton Hill and Davante Davis during the win in Waco. (Will Gallagher/IT)

CONCERNS

I’m somewhat concerned about Cal’s receiving corps and how the Air Raid punishes dumb defensive play.

Chad Hansen leads FBS in receiving. He’s a big, sure-handed receiver with excellent quickness. He can ball. Sheroid and Davante will have their hands full, but I’m also fairly certain he hasn’t seen CBs like them yet.

The rest of Cal’s receivers have the requisite mix of one dimensional speed guys and sure-handed types. To me, the Texas D’s challenge is a mental one. Can we line up right? Play smart? Play team defense and trade receivers seamlessly? Understand where help is? Tackle?

We failed all of those questions miserably in 2015.

The winning recipe is simple: mix up some coverages, shrug at offense between the 20s, pop Webb a few times, buckle down situationally, play zone credibly when we need to, jump on their short routes when it’s 3rd and 6+ and tackle.

I think a credible defensive goal is to limit YPA in the passing game under 7 (ideally, under 6.5), create at least two passing game turnovers, keep Cal under 40% on 3rd down and eliminate X runs.