Simply put: this could decide the game. The California run defense hasn't exactly been stellar this year, allowing more than 130 yards per game and giving up 213 yards in the Golden Bears' last time out. For Texas, the question will be whether Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are completely healthy. The coaches say that they are, but we're heard that before. If both are ready to go, expect Texas to use its running game to draw out possessions and keep the ball away from Cal's explosive offense. And Kendricks and Holt will have tough jobs: not just in stopping Brown and Bergeron, but also in ready play action correctly and not allowing the Texas receivers to get the middle of the field open for intermediate routes.
If Cal can get Texas into passing situations, the multi-talented Hill will see the field. He has made three tackles for loss, broken up five passes, grabbed a sack and made two interceptions. That's quite a range, though his most important gig will come Wednesday when he's matched up against Shipley, an elite slot receiver who is getting back to full health. When healthy, Shipley has provided a huge safety blanket for both Texas quarterbacks, especially on third downs.
You've heard defensive coordinator Manny Diaz refer to it all season: eye control. In this instance, whomever lines up at quarterback for Texas — Ash took more snaps in practice — will need to utilize play-fakes to control Cattouse and Campbell, two excellent players in run support, and keep them from getting deeper drops. Why, you ask? Because Texas will have a chance to beat the Cal cornerbacks over the top, especially with the speed of Marquise Goodwin and Mike Davis. Of course, after controlling those eyes, Ash or McCoy will need to be able to make that deep throw. When they've hit it, Texas has been awfully tough to beat.
With any great offense, you have to figure out how to take away one of its biggest strengths. And the most likely strength to limit will be the running of Sofele. He only went over 100 yards in one of the Golden Bears' five losses. And in California's last three wins, he averaged almost 160 rushing yards per game. Limiting Sofele is key toward slowing down the vaunted Bear attack, and in Acho and Robinson, Texas has two linebackers who have demonstrated the ability to stop strong rushing games.
Sure, other players will also try their hands at Allen, the explosive California receiver with great height. But if this season has been any indication, the Longhorns perform best when tossing Byndom, arguably the Big 12's top cover cornerback, on the opposing team's top receiver. Allen has an outstanding size-speed combination, but so have players like Justin Blackmon and Jeff Fuller, both of whom Byndom limited with outstanding play. He could get some bracket help from one of the safeties, though the best outcome is simply for Byndom to play head-up on Allen, and win that matchup.
X-Factor: Game-changing plays
That may seem like too broad a category, but simply putting turnovers didn't seem to cover it. Texas has made some big plays on special teams this year, whereas California hasn't typically been great on that side of the ball. And turnovers might have more weight in a game like this as well, with California possessing quick-strike potential and the Longhorns needing short fields or long plays to up the scoreline. If it becomes a shootout, Texas could be in trouble, as the Longhorns just don't score as easily as other teams do.
A lot of this depends on the assumption that the Texas running backs are healthy. Assuming that they are, this is a game that becomes awfully tough for California. Not only does the primary Texas offensive strength (the running game) align with the Golden Bears' main defensive weakness, but the Texas defense seems tailor-built (complete with the lock-down cornerback to take on Keenan Allen) to take on the California offense. Now if Brown and Bergeron can't go, you can expect a 20, maybe 30-point swing. They're that important. But if they are ready to go, I see this as a double-digit Texas win.
TEXAS — 35
California — 21