Cal always knew that 2016 was going to be a retooling year in many different forms. There’s the obvious loss of Jared Goff’s “it” factor, but the Golden Bears also are reconstructing their defense and breaking in a new offensive coordinator and a host of inexperienced skill position players. It’s not so much one huge thing as a bunch of medium-sized things that added up to a loss on the road at San Diego State last week.
It doesn’t matter that Davis Webb set a new school record for passing attempts with 72 or that he threw for 522 yards and five touchdowns. What matters is that Cal lost to San Diego State and felt the need to pass it 72 times. If beating San Diego required 72 passes and only 22 total carries, three of which were by Webb, it begs the question — does Cal possess the means to beat any team unless the Bears can out-pass and outscore it in a shootout?
Unlike his mentor, Mike Leach, Cal head coach Sonny Dykes is still in search of that seminal program moment. The Bears have put up a lot of nifty throws and numbers, but they don’t have much to show for it. Dykes’ teams need to start taking down the top of the Pac-12 if Cal wants to be considered a real contender.
Enter the Texas Longhorns and their surprise start to the season. Texas wasn’t expected to have a bad season, but most people thought the Notre Dame game was going to go in a much different direction. Texas put its stamp on that game and then followed it up a week later with a sound win over Rice. A win over Cal and the Longhorns could very quickly find themselves in a position to deliver a death blow to the College Football Playoff hopes of their biggest rival, Oklahoma.
Should Cal repeat its performance last year, the Bears would bounce back in the polls and enter conference play against a tough Arizona State team on the road. That game is followed up by matchup with Utah at home, so coming to grips with the physical play of the Longhorns could pay dividends for the Bears down the road.
Texas at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Texas -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Davis Webb Must Limit Mistakes
All the yards and touchdown passes in the world won’t mean a thing to your head coach or your team’s success if you throw three interceptions and lose the game. Webb’s miscues all but gave San Diego State a win last week and turnovers are a staple of Texas head coach Charlie Strong’s defense. If the Aztecs can sack Webb twice and pick him off thrice, the Longhorns must be poring over film to find those tendencies.
Rocky Long’s defense don’t “accidentally” force turnovers, San Diego State creates them. Strong will likely send the same message to his team. Webb will have to understand that he will face pressure on a constant basis and learn to deal with it early. If he gets rattled and starts throwing interceptions, the Bear Raid may not have enough “umph” to get Cal over the hump against these 2016 Longhorns.
2. Contain Malik Jefferson
The last thing Webb wants to see all day is Jefferson in his face. Cal’s offensive line simply must find a way to handle the stud linebacker. Jefferson is a force and is only growing in his abilities thanks to his relationship with former Notre Dame standout Jaylon Smith. Jefferson has the ability to turn a game on its head and will be looking to do so against an error-prone Webb.
Cal will need to limit Jefferson’s damage by drawing up play that have Webb getting rid of the ball quickly and taking the Longhorn linebacker out of the equation. Offenses like Cal’s have the ability to frustrate key defensive players when they can’t get involved, but the trick is preventing someone of Jefferson’s ability from doing just that. Perhaps giving Jefferson and the rest of the Longhorn defense something to think about in the name of Chad Hansen is just what’s on tap.
3. Get Chad Hansen Involved
The redshirt junior wide receiver is off to a start that gets you on a few watch lists. Hansen has put up 160- and 190-yard performances in his two games along with three touchdown catches. Hansen is off-the-charts quick with outstanding hands and a penchant for the big play. Should he and Webb decide to have a career day, the Longhorn defense may not have the ability to keep up on offense.
The problem is isolating Hansen in a defense as stingy as the one the Longhorns field. Texas is back to its usual defensive prowess and Hansen may find yards hard to come by against a unit that did not allow UTEP to enter the red zone once last week. The aforementioned Jefferson leads the way with 13 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. If Hansen is able to break through Texas’ defense, it may test the will of Strong’s team and prove the worth of Dykes’ offense.
These games have been fairly entertaining over the past couple of years. This year’s edition looks to be no different. Cal is much better than its showing against San Diego State would suggest. Likewise, Texas’ abilities may be less superhuman than we’d like to believe. The Longhorns have a rich and storied history of fooling people when it comes to their playing level, but this team has a different smell to it.
Cal may have a guy that knows Texas from their time together in the Big 12, but former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes’ Bears don’t have the guns to go head-to-head against this Longhorn team and walk away with the win. That’s not to say Cal can’t win, it just will want to avoid standing in the middle of the ring and trading blows, in a figurative sense. Cal needs to set the tone with Texas early or the home team runs the risk of Texas taking the initiative. One of these teams is going to be on the wrong end of a high-speed chase and the candidate driving the car most likely to stall before the clock hits zero in the fourth quarter are the Bears. In the end, the Longhorns exact some revenge for last season’s painful loss in Austin.
Prediction: Texas 45, Cal 41
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.