No Passing Fancy in Holiday Bowl

Bears, Longhorns embrace the ground game in an era of spread offenses.

SAN DIEGO – The Big 12 Conference was really the first BCS league to go all-in running spread offenses. And it worked, as Oklahoma and Texas won BCS championships and even turning the likes of Texas Tech and Kansas in relevant national players, albeit for a short time.

But after a disastrous 5-7 campaign last season, the Longhorns decided to go back to the power running game that worked initially under head coach Mack Brown, hiring Bryan Harsin from Boise State to redevelop an offense that had become terribly ineffective.

California too went through its own brief spread phase a few years back and it wasn't until Jeff Tedford fully committed to a conservative, but effective, approach that the Golden Bears hit their stride late in the season.

These two similar approaches meet Wednesday afternoon in the Holiday Bowl (5 p.m., ESPN) as two of the most improved rushing offenses in the game contend with two stout rushing defenses.

Texas (7-5, 4-5 Big 12) averaged 210 yards per game on the ground, largely because of the contributions of freshmen Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron.

Brown, the five-star prospect from Cibolo (Texas) Steele), immediately lived up to his billing with 110 yards and a touchdown at UCLA. He peaked at midseason with 254 yards and four scores against Oklahoma State and Kansas before turf toe rendered him a non-factor in the final five games.

The 6-foot, 213-pound Brown did not play against Texas Tech, Missouri and Baylor and was ineffective – 72 yards on 18 carries – against Kansas State and Texas A&M, but his coach said he is healthy after the long layoff.

"He's been full speed and he's done really well," Brown said. "He is about like he was the last time we saw him, before he got hurt. He's better than he was in the A&M game."

Bergeron was less heralded, but has also shown flashes, rushing for 191 yards and three touchdowns against the Red Raiders in place of Brown.

"I think they have very good vision," Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said of Bergeron and Brown. "The first guy doesn't get them on the ground, so we have to gang tackle these backs. They are very strong runners so we have to do a good job swarming the ball."

Cal (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) has its own tandem of backs to rely on in Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson.

Sofele, the junior from Salt Lake City (Utah) Cottonwood, averaged 22 carries and 142 yards rushing per game in November as the Bears won three of four, while Anderson scored three touchdowns at Arizona State.

Of course, both sides have been heavy on the run to protect first-year starting quarterbacks. Zach Maynard started every game for Cal, while David Ash and Case McCoy split time for Texas.

And as would be expected from young players, turnovers have been an issue. Aside from a four-interception mess at UCLA, Maynard the transfer from Buffalo has been better in that regard as the season went along.

McCoy, however, threw three interceptions at Baylor in a 48-24 loss, while Ash has been picked off eight times this season.

Avoiding those mistakes will be key.

"You turn the football over, you're not going to win too many football games if you lose the turnover battle," Tedford said. Protecting the football is key."

The conservative nature of both teams means explosive plays could be the difference, something both playcallers have been able to manufacture in their careers with misdirection.

Harsin made his name at Boise State with trick plays, while Brown harkened back to the 2000 Holiday Bowl when Tedford, the offensive coordinator at Oregon, dialed up a pass from wide receiver Keenan Howry to quarterback Joey Harrington for an 18-yard touchdown.

"It's interesting – the Longhorn Network hired Joey, I think, just to make me mad. I see that throw back to the quarterback every time I see his face. It's not healthy for me," Brown joked during the press conference Tuesday.

The challenge defending such plays is one of discipline, Pendergast said.

"We got to read our keys, something we harp on everyday in the meetings and practice field is guys playing with good eyes in terms of looking at the right stuff," he said. "If you're keying the right things, those big plays generally don't happen. That's something that we've got to do in this game for sure."


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