Two words can describe each of the December 28th Holiday Bowl's participants.
For the Texas Longhorns those words are 'youth' and 'injuries.'
Despite a talented roster, the Longhorns are painfully young at many key positions, most notably quarterback, where sophomore Case McCoy is tag-teaming with freshman David Ash for minutes.
At running back freshmen Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron could also be described as young, but when you add in RB senior Fozzy Whittaker, 'injured' is the main watchword. All three are injured, Whittaker being out for the year. Add in injured freshman wide receiver Jaxon Shipley and you see a Texas offense in trouble.
On the other side, California Golden Bears' words are 'experience' and 'talent.' They have few injured players and most of their youth possess an extreme amount of talent.
Four Cal players in particular will need to dominate at their positions to overcome a strong Texas defense and harrow a fragile Texas offense. If these players step up then the Bears are assured victory.
Allow me to introduce the Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, LB Mychal Kendricks. As leader of the Cal Bears defense, Kendricks will be the unifying force that further cripples an already floundering Texas offense.
Kendricks has 96 tackles (an even eight per game), 13 for loss; three sacks this year for 30 yards; and has helped Cal hold seven opponents to 15 points or fewer this season.
Texas' offense averaged 3.6 yards per play against Texas A&M and half their drives against Baylor ended with a fumble or interception. Those were their last two games of the season and they were against very bad defenses.
Imagine what a stout Cal defense that allowed just 339 yards per game and averaged 2.67 sacks per game (seventh in the nation) will do to an injured and youthful Texas line?
Kendricks will be responsible for reigning in Texas' talent if the Bears are to come away with a victory.
Let's face it: quarterbacks need to deliver unless you have a top-five defense. Any team with a competent running game also needs a quarterback who can throw to open up rushing lanes. And with the Texas QB tandem still getting their game together, Maynard needs to prove that his last four games of the season were truly indications of improvement and not flukes.
I believe in the former.
His completion percentage in Cal's last four games goes like this: 58.8, 68.4, 69, 73.1. Hard to argue with those numbers, especially when one of them, the 69 percent, was against No. 4 Stanford Cardinal and their top 25 defense.
Maynard merely needs to maintain those numbers if he wants to succeed against a strong Texas defense. If he continues to improve...
The star wide receiver for the Bears teamed up with his half-brother Zach Maynard in his sophomore year. To no one's surprise, Allen made the Pac-12 First Team Offense with 89 receptions totaling 1,261 yards and six touchdowns. It would probably be more, but Cal has another good WR in Marvin Jones.
Allen, however, is the receiver that needs to flourish in this game. Texas defends the rush fairly well, but is weaker in pass defense.
Allen will be tasked with getting free from Texas senior safety Blake Gideon. Gideon is a leader for the Texas defense, but he had a terrible game against the Baylor Bears, getting trapped in man-to-man coverage and allowing quicker receivers to get past him. Expect the 5-star recruit Allen to dominate this matchup.
After attempting only 69 carries for 338 yards and zero touchdowns last season, RB Isi Sofele has exploded in 2011. At the end of the season he has racked up 232 carries for 1,270 yards and nine touchdowns. And the majority of that came in November, when the Bears began pushing their running game.
Now, Texas has a strong defense and a better rush defense. It's important for Isi Sofele to continue his success this postseason, not as the main offensive weapon, but as a compliment to the passing game of Maynard and Allen.
The balanced assault will leave holes in the defense that Sofele needs to be ready to exploit.
One final player that will be crucial for Cal's success: Mitchell Schwartz. He made the Pac-12 First Team Offense this year alongside Keenan Allen and he will be one of the leaders on the line matching up against Texas stalwart Emmanuel Acho.
A Lott Trophy finalist, Acho is a beast on defense. With 109 tackles this season for the Longhorns and 3 sacks, Acho is the leader of the Texas defense.
As a leader of the Bears' offense, Schwartz will be looked upon to keep it clicking. I don't expect Schwartz to dominate Acho, but I do expect him to protect and facilitate Maynard, Allen and Sofele to the best of his substantial abilities.
If those three along with Mychal Kendricks can dominate their positions then the Bears will be well set up to win the Holiday Bowl.