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Texas-Cal Football Post Mortem: Defense

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It's the late third quarter and the Horns are holding on to a shaky 14-10 lead. They punt from their own end zone after just missing on a 3rd and 18 throw to Goodwin at midfield. The punt dribbles feebly from Tucker's leg like the third shake of your wang after you've been sipping Concord Grape Juice and Marvin Jones brings it to the Texas 27 yard line. Dark clouds descend. Admit it, you thought we were going down 17-14, right? Well, I did.

The Texas defense didn't think so.

Three plays later, it's Texas ball on Cal's 44 yard line after these three plays that took all of 39 seconds: incompletion to Sofele, Keenan Robinson -2 yard tackle for loss followed by a Cal personal foul, Adrian Phillips sack and strip of Maynard that's recovered by Chris Whaley. Momentum, that treacherous bitch, returned with profuse apologies and made us pancakes. Texas promptly drove for a score borne on the sweet feet of Marquise Goodwin and the power bunions of Cody Johnson.

Game over.

A totally dominating performance by a Texas defense that deserves all of the love for our Holiday Bowl victory. They showed what they're capable of when the offense, even when sputtering, can protect the ball, offer up some long fields to defend, and provide a lead. For that, they receive the coveted Led Zeppelin, for generally rocking the arena and aggressive mud sharking.

The numbers are straightforward enough: 5 forced turnovers, 6 sacks, 13 tackles for loss. Cal averaged 2.8 yards per play while amassing 195 yards from scrimmage, Isi Sofele was irrelevant with 52 yards on 20 carries, and the excellent Keenan Allen's longest play downfield went for 21 yards. Indeed, Cal's two elite WRs, our biggest pre-game concern, combined for just 10 yards a catch. Manny's greatest triumph was blitzing while simultaneously preventing a quality downfield passing offense from breaking out of dink-and-dunk mode. When you can't punish us over the top for bringing five or six, you're in for a long evening. I was surprised to see Cal not attempt to spread us out a bit, but that goes against Tedford's play-action orientation and I suppose it would have exposed Maynard to some brutal shots.

In reviewing the tape, all of Cal's positive offense came from a good play call or an outstanding individual effort and none of those translated into anything remotely explosive. The definition of good D.

This Texas defense really was badass in the second half of the season. And yes, RGIII really is that good. Vince Young/Cameron Newton good. The Washington Huskies agree. We didn't "play better" against Cal so much as play against human beings again.

DL

A great tag team effort inside from Whaley, Dorsey, Randall, Jackson, Howell and a nice foreshadowing of how we'll attack this position next year. With numbers. We'll play six or seven inside (I think Dorsey will become the top dog and God only knows what Chris Whaley might become), each will have a specific role, and we'll ask for 25 high effort snaps a game. Works for me. By season's end, Cal had developed a nice little inside running game with Sofele putting up big numbers running through tractor-trailer holes, but we completely destroyed their OL at the point of attack. In my preview, I posited that Sofele was basically a really quick guy with little value add beyond that and that proved to be true - without a clean hole, he's done. Watching them attempt to run inside and outside zone took against our front 7 took on a Christians vs. lions/Cal Womyn's Studies vs. deodorant dynamic. When your LBs finish the game 1-2-3 in tackles, your interior DL is keeping it clean.

I was surprised to see Cal repeatedly attempt to block our edge guys and blitzers with TEs, RBs, or with simple influence on misdirection play-action. Jeffcoat is way too strong for skill guys and far too canny to get fooled more than once. His two sacks were a continuation of a strong second half of the season and he's poised for big things in 2012. Okafor played the run extremely well, but was pretty quiet off of the edge.

LB

Acho's last seven games as a Longhorn are the best LBing we've had here since Derrick Johnson and there is no close 3rd. We will miss him, not only for his on-field play, but for what the Achos represent as Longhorns, excelling in every aspect of university life. The same could be said of Keenan Robinson's play over the last part of the season - his physicality at the point of attack is light years from how he started the season and he was continually disruptive all game. Much too strong for Cal's skill guys, way too quick for their OL. The two combined for 16 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss and that's usually where we leave the LB assessment, but encouragingly, Jordan Hicks played his best game as a Longhorn and demonstrated exactly what he's capable of as an edge rusher and instinctive athlete. 7 tackles, 1.5 sacks (including an off-the-edge straight pass rush sack that made him look like a natural 3-4 OLB) and 2.5 tackles for loss. Not shabby. I didn't expect to see us play that much with three LBs and I'm thrilled with what Hicks showed us. He has to be sky high heading into the Spring.

DB

Nails. Byndom and Diggs held down two NFL WRs that terrorized the Pac 12 all season, Kenny Vaccaro was hurdling guys like Maynard was a Gregory Gym law student who criticized Miami Ink, and a fully healed Adrian Phillips ate Cal up on safety blitzes and in coverage. Blake Gideon played deep safety and was rarely in the frame on 80% of our snaps, but it needs to be mentioned that he played with a significant arm injury that would have had most players tapping out.

If you noticed #29 making plays, that's Sheroid Evans, arguably the fastest guy on our roster in pads. He clearly doesn't mind putting his nose in there, he has a great frame, and Duane Akina has a proven track record of turning, well - track records - into gridiron assassins. And we also have Josh Turner, Mykkele Thompson, Leroy Scott all competing for spots next year...it's good to be DBU.

I didn't fully appreciate the job Byndom did on Keenan Allen until I re-watched the game. Allen is a baller. The different formations and creative play-calling Tedford used to get Allen the ball in space is a tribute to #23. Allen couldn't just line up and beat him straight up consistently. At least not within the 2.8 seconds Maynard had to release the ball before getting hit in his lymph nodes. I've been blown away by Byndom all season and it's frightening to consider that he's still improving and still hasn't grown into his body. He has obvious skills, but this is an intelligent, focused kid with a real shot at being listed in the pantheon of Longhorn corners. Similarly, Diggs did a nice job on Marvin Jones despite the size deficit and his athletic interception and two pass break ups are proof that unless you throw the ball perfectly, our corners will punish you for your mistakes.

Adrian Phillips played an outstanding game and he excelled in his role as a blitzer and getting deep drops into zone from the LOS. His flexibility and physicality give us a ton of options in exploiting his skill set. He could start at any position in the secondary and acquit himself well. One of my favorites since I first saw his recruiting film and nothing has changed in that regard.

Vaccaro's uniqueness - a 210-215 hybrid who has the flexibility and quickness of a 180 pound athlete - means we have a chance at offering up some fascinating defensive looks next year when you combine him with flexible multi-tools like Hicks and Phillips. Want to run a base nickel that can stop the run? We might just be able to pull it off. More on that soon when I tackle a What To Expect In '12 project in the coming weeks.

Overall

When your defensive coordinator wiretaps Tedford's head set, Cal's players keep getting up slowly and shaking their heads after the tackle with the "that shit hurt" body language, and every player on the Longhorn defense is dialed into their assignment and playing with great effort, this is the kind of result we're rewarded with.

As much as I enjoyed the moment, it's hard not to use it to look ahead, and as much as we'll miss players like Keenan Robinson, Kheeston Randall, and Emmanuel Acho, the developmental trajectory of our returning starters is exactly where we want it to be. And there are enough promising players waiting in the wings to make me optimistic that next year's sights are set not on being the best defense in the league - that's in the bag, by the way - but on being the best one in the country. That's a tougher bill to fill, but we're not that far off.

8-5...with a bullet!!!!!!!!!!