The high-scoring California Golden Bears travel to Austin this week to take on a Texas team that's learning as it goes.
Charlie Strong's group has absolutely felt the loss of 10 starters from last season, especially on defense. Through two games, the Horns are allowing over 500 yards of offense per game while averaging just 163 for themselves.
It's a work in progress, but Strong seems to have finally found an answer to his problem at quarterback. Making his first career start, redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard led a rejuvenated attack against Rice, generating several big plays en route to a 42-28 win over the Owls.
Heard and the rest of the Longhorns will need a much better effort to pull off the same feat against Cal. Quarterback Jared Goff has this offense humming once again, while the rest of Sonny Dykes' squad looks much improved from last year's 5-7 campaign.
Heard has provided the boost Texas needs, but he'll need a lot of help from his defense in order to compete in this one.
When Cal Has the Ball
Cal always wants to throw the ball deep with Goff, and that'll be especially true against Texas' struggling secondary.
Through two games, the Golden Bears are averaging 54 points, 396 passing yards and 10.7 yards per attempt. Per cfbstats.com, all three of those figures are in the top 10 in the nation for an offense that mercilessly attacks you downfield. Burnt Orange Nation's Wescott Eberts relayed this stat:
That's bad news for the Longhorns, whose secondary has had major issues through two games. As noted by 247Sports' Jeff Howe, Texas has already given up 15 plays of 15 yards or more through the air, allowing nine yards per attempt while recording just three sacks. The latter issue is preventing this team from getting off the field on third down, as Strong said following the win over Rice:
I told Vance [Bedford] during the game, I said, I guarantee you, I said we have 20 missed tackles or more. And sacks, God almighty, what did we miss, about 10 sacks? And that's where you get your negative yardage from. And then we just we had to do a better job and just get off the field and third down.
The entire defensive line must be better, and it starts with defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway. A year after recording six sacks, the junior has been slow out of the gate and has yet to record even a pressure. He has to figure out a way to get penetration and free up the other pass-rushers, or Goff's going to shred this team.
As for the secondary, look for freshmen Kris Boyd and Holton Hill to play a much bigger role. These two came on late in Texas' shutout third quarter against Rice, bringing a physical style that the starters lacked.
The Bears will continue to run the ball well (4.7 yards per carry on 75 attempts), but they're not going to give this secondary a break. Unless the pass rush picks up for Texas, it's going to be a long day for its defense.
When Texas Has the Ball
From the moment he took the field against Rice, Heard has been Texas' primary source of explosive plays. He should be the focal point of both teams on Saturday.
Everyone who has even marginally paid attention to the Horns these past few seasons is asking themselves the same question—what took them so long?
Heard made an instant impact for the anemic Longhorn offense against Rice. His third snap was a 35-yard run up the left sideline, his first drive ended with a 32-yard touchdown and his first play of the second half was a 69-yard touchdown strike. Overall, it took him seven passes to put up 120 yards and two scores along with 96 yards on 10 carries.
There are playmakers around Heard, but he's the engine that has to drive this Texas offense. His dual-threat ability is a constant nuisance for defenses, clearing space for the skill players around him.
Heard presents the first test for a Cal defense that was absolutely brutal in 2014. After finishing dead last in pass defense in yards allowed last season, the Bears have given up just 363 yards through the air to start the season, albeit against Grambling State and San Diego State. But with nine returning starters and some JUCO help, there's no reason this team can't improve.
Heard will be a stiff test due to his legs and opportunistic arm, but this group should have enough to get the job done.
Key Player for Cal: RB Daniel Lasco
Daniel Lasco strained his hip against San Diego State, but he's expected to play on Saturday. If he's effective, this one's a blowout.
As stated above, we know that the Bears are going to air it out with Goff. That's just what you do when you have a future first-round pick slinging it against a defense that's struggling downfield.
But Texas' issues against the run are just as obvious. Per 247Sports' Howe, the Horns have given up 14 runs of 10 yards or more, allowing 221 yards per game on the ground. When a guy from Rice lights you up for 130 yards, you know there are problems.
The Owls' Sam Stewart had a nice game, but he's nowhere near Lasco's talent. A big, decisive back, the senior is considered one of the top runners in the nation by ESPN's Todd McShay thanks to his constant feasting on teams that drop back into coverage.
Texas' prime focus will be to get after Goff and try to force some mistakes. Lasco can blow that up and turn this into a track meet for one of the nation's best offenses.
Key Player for Texas: WR Daje Johnson
We've talked about Heard's importance to the offense and the need for Ridgeway to come up big in the middle. Those things being equal, Texas will still need Daje Johnson to stand out in whatever way he can.
A lot has been made of Texas' time-of-possession deficit in Saturday's win over the Owls. However, Johnson's performance made that a deceptive figure, returning a punt 85 yards for a touchdown to earn distinction as the Big 12's Player of the Week, as Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman noted:
Combined with the other big plays, time of possession hardly factored into the Longhorns' win.
Texas will need more of the same from Johnson, who now has four touchdowns of 65 yards or greater for his career. He's the one player on this roster who can turn the tide in multiple phases of the game, and he'll need to contribute both as a receiver and a returner.
Johnson made a name for himself as a freshman with an 84-yard touchdown in a 56-50 shootout win over Baylor. He'll need to come up just as big in this contest.
Prediction: Cal 38, Texas 24
This one comes down to strengths versus weaknesses.
Goff and the Bears are among the best in the nation when it comes to getting the ball downfield. On the other hand, Texas has been burned in that phase of the game over a dozen times this season and will be relying on freshmen to stop the bleeding.
Last Saturday's victory also represents just the second time the Horns have broken 40 points since Charlie Strong took over. The Bears have done it seven times over that same span.
Unless Texas' defense has made a quantum leap, the Horns will have to enter Shootout Mode to keep pace. The Bears will win that sort of duel every time.