Game Preview: Cal vs. Texas

Cal heads down to Texas on Saturday for perhaps the biggest game of the season, and a chance to turn national heads ...

California is a seven-point favorite on the road this week, when the Bears visit Texas for a 4:30 p.m., local kick against the Longhorns, and, for redshirt senior offensive linemanJordan Rigsbee, that’s not a surprise.

“I think we deserve to be,” he says. “I think we’ve been playing really well, and I think it shows. I think we should come and expect to win this game. I don’t think it’s a game that’s over-hyped or anything like that. It’s about where it should be.”

Rigsbee and Texas-born running back Daniel Lasco were on the sidelines, in sweats, as the Bears lost, 21-10, to Texas at the 2011 Holiday Bowl, a game many saw as a grudge match for Cal against then-Longhorns coach Mack Brown.

“I was a redshirt that year, so I was there, in sweats on the sidelines. Most of the guys that are on the team now weren’t even around for that game, but it’s cool. It’d be fun to beat them,” says Rigsbee.

Cal is 0-5 all-time against the Longhorns, but perhaps the biggest blow Texas has dealt the Bears had nothing to do with the teams on the field. “I think most of our players were 10-years old at that point,” says head coach Sonny Dykes, referring to the 2005 Rose Bowl snub that’s seared into the minds of many Cal fans.

In 2004, the Bears – led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers – were 10-1, finished No. 4 in both the writers and coaches polls, but dropped to No. 5 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, right behind Texas.

The only team Cal lost to that year was No. 1 USC – after out-gaining the Trojans, 424 to 205 yards, and coming within nine yards of a winning score – and the Bears were the only team ranked in the top six in the nation in scoring offense and scoring defense. But, a 26-16 win over Southern Mississippi in the rescheduled series finale – thanks to Hurricane Ivan – wasn’t enough for voters.

After Texas’s final game – a 26-13 win over rival Texas A&M – Brown said, “If you’ve got a vote, vote for us.”

The Longhorns had barely beaten a 5-6 Missouri team 28-20, eked by a 4-7 Kansas team 27-23, and lost to an Oklahoma team that was blasted 55-19 by the same USC team that was just barely a touchdown better than the Bears.

After Brown’s campaign, Cal dropped from fourth to seventh on four coaches’ ballots, and from fourth to eighth on two more. No Associated Press Poll voter had Cal lower than No. 6. The coaches’ ballots were protected by anonymity (the BCS would make final poll votes public the very next year), and the AP Poll pulled out of the BCS the following season.

Cal went to the Holiday Bowl, and was summarily beaten by Texas Tech, for whom Dykes was the wide receivers coach. Texas went to the Rose Bowl, and won the national title the next year.

“I am aware of that. All the Old Blues are very aware of that,” says Rigsbee. “They’re excited to watch us play and try to take it to them a little bit.”

While most players were too young to remember – Plano, Tex., native Nathan Broussard said he was barely into football at the time – quarterback Jared Goff does. “I do remember that time,” Goff says. “I remember when Cal was in the national title picture, and they finished fourth. It was only right for the one and two teams to play, and then the three and four teams would play in the Rose Bowl.”

There were even Rose Bowl-logo t-shirts being sold in the Student Store.

“Some how, some way, they weren’t in there, and Texas was, and it was a big whatever-it-was,” Goff says. “I don’t know many details about it, but from what I’ve heard, we were supposed to be there, and they weren’t.”

Goff has had his fair share of Heisman hype, and his 73.2% completion rate and 630 yards over two games have helped to fuel that, but all he wants to do is to win, and to bring Cal back to where it was under Rodgers – in the national conversation.

“I don’t think about it. I let you guys take care of that stuff. I try to win games,” Goff says. “I want to bring us back to where we were, years ago. It’s been on the downslope for five years. I want winning to be a common thing around here.”

The Bears are 2-0, which is exactly where Goff wanted them to be, headed into Austin. Texans In the Backfield

Lasco -- now Cal's starting tailback, with his own axe to grind against the Longhorns -- went down with a hip injury with about nine minutes left on Saturday against San Diego State, and though he ran for 123 yards on 19 carries, he may not be available this week, as he’s been moving gingerly in practice. It’s not known whether the Bears will have the services of the Texas-born running back when they play the Texas Longhorns on Saturday, but with one Texas running back down, another steps up, in Vic Enwere.

Enwere had a remarkable four-yard fourth-down rumble on Saturday against the Aztecs, and also ran for a touchdown last week. He looks like he’ll be the guy, after running with the first-team over the course of the week.

A big stat to keep a finger on: Texas is 127th in the nation (dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision) in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 62.3% of their chances. “Texas’s defense is almost going to be a lot simpler than what we’ve been dealing with,” says Rigsbee. “San Diego State and Grambling State both threw a lot of blitz, a lot of twist, a lot of zone block, that kind of stuff. Texas, I was watching film yesterday, and they run a four-down, they stem in and out from an odd to a four-man front. I think their D-linemen are going to be a little stouter, bigger. I think we’re going to be able to grind on them a little bit, later in the game, with our fast tempo and things like that. I think they’ll be stouter up front than the past two weeks.”

If Cal can run the ball, and run it quickly in the Bear Raid tempo offense, the Bears are going to wear Texas down, and if they can wear down the Longhorns, they have a very good chance at putting up a lot of points against a struggling Texas team.

“The reason we play tempo is to get an advantage at that stage,” says offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.

Texas head coach Charlie Strong has talked about potentially adding a fourth down lineman to the defensive front to get more pressure on Goff and stop the run (Texas is 110th in the nation in run defense) but if he does that, Goff could very well strike at the back half of the Longhorns’ defense, which ranks 96th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game.

The Longhorns have had particular trouble with dual-threat quarterbacks – facing Malik Zaire and Driphus Jackson the past two weeks – but Goff is certainly not that, though he can move if he needs to. Goff is more of a pure pocket passer, but he’s got more arm talent than the quarterbacks Texas – and its weary back end – have seen so far.

“I think they’re very sound,” Goff says. “They’re a very sound defense. They’re where they’re supposed to be at all times, and they’re very athletic, as well, so that’s going to play to their advantage. They’re going to be a solid defense for us to face, and it’s going to be another challenge for us.” The Thundering Heard

Defensively, Cal has to be worried at least a little bit about redshirt freshman Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard, because with him at the helm, the Longhorns – and new play-caller Jay Norvell – are going to run a lot of zone read and option plays to take advantage of his mobility, and Cal has had issues in the past keeping edge contain and sealing the outside.

“They’ve changed quarterbacks, they’ve changed offensive play callers, they’re doing some things differently than what they’ve done,” says defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, referring to Heard and wide-receivers-coach-cum-offensive-coordinator Norvell. “I’m sure they’ll keep adding. The big thing we’ve got to do is take care of us and take care of our fundamentals and make sure we make our adjustments as we go along.”

Heard only threw seven passes last time out against Rice – completing four – so his legs are going to be a much more important factor.

If the Bears can force Heard – a true freshman – into being a pure passer, with two true freshmen starting on the offensive line in front of him, then they could have a big day. If not, it could be a long one for the linebackers and safeties.

“The biggest thing is that [Heard] is a guy who’s very elusive. When he puts his foot in the ground and gets ready to take off, he can make some things happen,” Kaufman says. “He’s got good arm strength, and they keep it to where he knows what he’s doing, where he’s going with the ball, and I think the big thing is his speed.”

The biggest issue with Heard is that there isn’t much film to draw on. Last week, the Texas offense ran only 39 plays, and Heard played fewer than 10 snaps the week before.

“We’ve got to know what he’s thinking and where he’s at, at all times, and make sure that we keep him hemmed up,” Kaufman says. “I think the big thing is, people ask me, ‘Are you going to blitz more?’ That’s a matter of how the game matches up over the course of the game. He may be great at handling the blitz. I don’t know. He may not be very good. That’s something that we have to find out.”

Texas has allowed 12 tackles for loss in two games, and the Bears have tallied five sacks (they had just 16 all last year) and six interceptions (they had 12 all of last year), so the pass rush and pressure has certainly improved. The real question is whether or not that will continue against a true dual-threat quarterback. So Very Special

The other match-up to keep an eye on is special teams, particularly Daje Johnson, who ran a punt back 85 yards for a touchdown last week. If there’s one place where Cal can lose this game, it’s in special teams.

They’re well aware of that,” special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl says. “They can see the impact – positive and negative – that they have on the game.” 

On the year, Texas has averaged 26.42 yards per kickoff return, and 29.67 yards per punt return. Of all the things that have gone wrong with the Longhorns this season, the return game certainly isn’t counted among them.

“That’s an understatement,” says Cal special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl. “They had a great day on Saturday against Rice. Texas deserves everybody’s attention.”

Johnson, for one, is a handful.

“In the first game, he was also their primary kickoff returner, and he’s a very talented guy,” Tommerdahl says. “We’re all familiar with him. He’s a special player. Everybody will know where he is. There will be 90,000 people who know where he is. I don’t mean to be cliché, but we’ve got to be really fundamentally sound. We’re going to have to cover as well as anybody in the country.”

In the Bears’ previous two games, they’ve had a few special teams miscues, from time outs called both before and after a punt, to a missed field goal to allowing over 20 yards per kickoff return against Grambling State, and over 30 yards per kickoff return against San Diego State.

“We’ve got a pretty good handle on it,” Tommerdahl says. “It’s fundamentals. You can sit and watch film and say that – we’ve got to do a better job getting off of the point of attack.”

The one part of the special teams game that’s worked as planned has been punt coverage, in large part thanks to the leg of Cole Leininger, who’s averaged 40.6 yards per boot, with seven fair catches, with five of his nine punts inside the 20.

“Cole’s been hanging the ball really well,” Tommerdahl says. “It’s that time of year, now. After Texas, we’re going to Washington. My point is, we’re getting into that stretch.” Top Stories