Holiday Bowl Defensive Notes and Quotes

First possession struggles give way to dominance for a defense that returns the vast majority of Holiday Bowl playmakers.
The Texas defense’s first drive woes continued vs. Cal. The Bears turned in an 11-play, 40-yard field goal drive on their first possession, including plays of eight, nine, 11 and 10 yards and converting two third down conversions along the way. BYU (10 plays, 45 yards, field goal), OU (8 plays, 62 yards, field goal), Tech (16 plays, 71 yards, field goal), Mizzou (7 plays, 68 yards, fumble), A&M (6 plays, 57 yards, touchdown) and Baylor (2 plays, 59 yards, touchdown) all had opening drive success against Manny Diaz’s defense. Cal’s offensive success was short-lived. After the opening drive field goal, the Bears’ first half possessions looked like this: 5 plays, -4 yards, interception; 3 plays, 8 yards, fumble; 5 plays, 8 yards, punt; 3 plays, 4 yards, punt; 3 plays, 9 yards, punt; and 7 plays, 18 yards, punt. Cal finished the half with 73 total yards, and just 10 rushing yards on 18 attempts. After Cal’s 69-yard TD drive to open the second half, the Texas D almost completely dominated. The Bears managed just 59 yards on 22 plays on six drives to close out the game. Three of the six drives ended in negative yardage, and three ended on a fumble. For the game, the Horns forced five turnovers, a season high. It’s tough to pick just one defensive play of the game when there were so many critical ones, but I’d go with the Adrian Phillips third down sack and forced fumble of Cal QB Zach Maynard with Cal in Texas territory late in the third quarter. The fumble, recovered by Chris Whaley, completely flipped field position, setting up the Longhorn offense at the Bears’ 44 rather than deep in its own territory after a probable punt. Then, on the first play after the fumble, Marquise Goodwin raced 37 yards to the Cal seven. Texas scored two plays later to, effectively, put the game out of reach at 21-10. The whole late third quarter sequence that led to the final touchdown was probably the most exciting of what at times was an excruciating game. Cal had the ball at the 50 with a third-and-one when a Jordan Hicks behind-the-line stop of Isi Sofele forced a punt. Quandre Diggs called for fair catch at the 20, but a personal foul on Kenny Vaccaro pushed the Texas offense back to the 10. On first down, the Bears sacked David Ash at the one, putting Texas in second-and-19 from the goalline. After a Malcolm Brown run up the middle netted a yard, Texas and then Cal called timeouts. Before the Golden Bears’ timeout, Marquis Goodwin, split wide right in the Texas formation, faced single coverage with no safety help as Cal looked to stuff a probable run. I expected that after the timeout, the Bears would at least slide a safety out to Goodwin’s side. They didn’t. As Ash dropped back, it was apparent that Goodwin was the intended target and that he was indeed open but the delivery from Ash pushed Goodwin just an inch or two too wide to make an inbounds catch. Justin Tucker’s 41-yard line drive punt allowed for a 16-yard return putting Cal 27 yards from a go-ahead score. But the Texas defense put extreme pressure on Maynard on first down, leading to an incompletion. On second down, Keenan Robinson stopped C.J. Anderson behind the line for a two-yard loss and a dead ball personal foul on one of the chatty Cal wide receivers (I think it was on Ross Bostock, but Keenan Allen had been yapping at the Texas DBs all night) set up the play of the game described above. Manny Diaz was asked post-game about how he kept his defenders from being aggravated with the offense as it struggled. “I just don’t know what there is to be aggravated about,” the Horns’ first-year defensive coordinator said. “We’ve rebranded ourselves. We’re a grind it out football team so there’s never a sense of panic. The score midway through the second quarter is irrelevant to us. All we’re focused on is hitting them in the kidney.”Junior safety Kenny Vaccaro, asked post-game what would go into his decision to return for his senior season or turn pro, said, “I’ll be back next year. I want to win the Thorpe, that’s it, and I want to go to South Beach, that’s where the Orange Bowl (national title game) is.” Texas’ senior linebackers went out on a very high note. Keenan Robinson earned the defensive MVP award and tied with Emmanuel Acho with a team-high eight tackles. Robinson had 2.5 TFLs. Youth was served, as well. Sophomore Jordan Hicks turned in perhaps his best performance since the 2010 Nebraska game. Sophomore Jackson Jeffcoat, who finished with 2.5 TFLs including two sacks, was in the Cal backfield about as often as Cal QB Zach Maynard. True freshman DT Desmond Jackson also had half a sack. And all five turnovers involved underclassmen (forced fumbles by sophomores Adrian Phillips and Calvin Howell and true freshman Sheroid Evans, fumble recoveries by sophomores Carrington Byndom, Calvin Howell, Chris Whaley and Reggie Wilson, and an interception by true freshman Quandre Diggs). “In any sport, great defenses are strong up the middle, and we do lose a little of the spine of our defense,” Diaz said. “We lose Kheeston Randall, our Mike and our Will, and our safety in the middle, so that will be the first thing that will have to be replaced and that will not just happen with the snap of a finger. We lose a lot of experience and a lot of snaps and a lot of what they did, especially in the run game, those three guys inside made a lot of the other stuff look good. I think the key with the guys coming back, and we’re still young next year, is this game is just a stepping stone. There’s no arriving. Every player we have coming back has so much room to grow and as coaches all we will impress upon them is, ‘Keep improving, keep getting better. If you think you’re good now, you have no idea how far this thing will go,’ and that will be our focus.”