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Shooting From the Hip: Cal 45, Texas 44

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This is how a heart breaks.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry for the delay, folks – the phone battery didn’t make it to the end of this one, so had to make a trek and start from scratch to get this together.  Probably for the best, since typing angry is never a good idea. 

Offense

Welcome to the Jerrod Heard show. 

It’s a really good show.

Heard put on a four quarter performance that was part high wire act, part live-wire electricity, part freshman mistakes, part preternatural poise and all you could hope to see from a nascent spread stallion.  You expected to see him show off some sweet feet, but he quickly put paid to the notion that his sideline deep shot to John Burt against Rice was any kind of a one-off.  Texas was attacking downfield constantly, and you can probably credit Norvaylor for spotting a weakness in the Bear defense that saw Heard hit three separate shots to guys wheeling up the sideline in the first quarter.  The first strike to Daje was impressive not just as a great find and throw from the QB, but also for Daje showing the savvy to immediately re-establish himself after getting pushed out to make himself legal.

Daje was a real downfield weapon – he’s not breaking off much in the way of Quan Cosby-style precision, but he’s clearing underneath coverage, making himself available and hauling in deep throws like a real, live wideout.  Back-to-back bonks that helped kill a 4th-quarter drive stung, but this is a guy who we were hoping could serve as a constraint player on sweeps and screens while restraining himself from re-entering the doghouse for a final time.  Daje’s ability to serve as a legit threat down the field is a pile of found money for an offense that had moths coming out of its pockets two weeks ago.

The real moneymaker for this offense right now, though, is Heard’s ability to consistently stress a defense with his legs.  The offense hinged on his ability to take off on designed draws, escape on scrambles, run zone reads and some real optionality to run-pass options by hanging on to the ball and keeping his eyes upfield to suck in defenders and then toss to a wide-open man. I’m not taking any bets on Heard surviving the entire Big XII slate if he’s logging 24 carries a game – and particularly not if he’s going to nearly get his head yanked off by guys who get to subsequently stay in the game – but I wouldn’t bet against this offense making its way into the upper echelon of the Big XII by season’s end.  Imagine saying that right after Notre Dame.

Daje was the headliner among the wideouts, but Foreman and Burt also turned in some strong moments.  Foreman is slick (but needs to win balls like the should-have-been-a-TD slant in the second quarter) and Burt is starting to show some after-the-catch nastiness and will be testing corners’ willingness to make tackles when he hauls in a ball. 

The OL gave Heard time to make things happen downfield, but a couple of killer holding calls shot our wheels off and Cal could have racked a bevy of sacks if not for his top-notch escapability.  Their work in the ground game was…marginal when you factor in opponent quality and the built-in constraint of Heard’s legs.  They got Gray a couple of soft corners and did the job on a couple of short TDs, but there was still too much congestion and not enough room inside.  For all the terrific offensive elements we’ve seen over the last two weeks, getting some boring 4- and 5-yard gains on Inside Zone is going to be crucial to making sure that the offense can stay the right kind of exciting.

Defense

If you told me before the game that 2016 first-rounder Jared Goff would have 268 yards on 37 attempts, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.  If I knew those would be his numbers with Texas forced to do battle without both its starting safeties, I’d have been pretty impressed.  And if you told me both those things along with the fact that Texas would put up 44 points, I’d have confidently marked us down for 2-1.

That’s what I get for forgetting about the run defense.

It seemed like an afterthought for Texas as well, as Cal ripped the Longhorns up one side and down the other for a tough-to-watch 280 yards on the ground with a trio of TDs.  Watching from the stands made it tough to accurately apportion blame between defensive line ineffectiveness, linebacking incompetence and dubious angles from the safeties, but my strong sense is that Digital Underground said it best – the answer is D, all of the above. 

When your DL isn’t consistently disrupting things in the backfield, holding their ground against double teams or preventing O-linemen from releasing to the second level, you need some talented and instinctive dudes backing the line to keep things from getting ugly in a hurry.  Malik has the talent, but the instincts are a work that needs a lot of progress and the less said about Jinkens’ instincts the better.  Texas kept getting DEs and linebackers caught inside on edge runs while Cal’s backs also managed to pop through A-gap holes with a head of steam and no one within two steps of hitting them at the second level.  When I’m more coherent I’ll start brainstorming solutions here, but outside of "Malik, Freeman and Wheeler rocked up the learning curve" there don’t seem to be a ton of quick fixes in sight – unless Kevin Vaccaro can keep forcing fumbles despite taking the worst of collisions.

The pass D gets graded on a bit of a curve with both safeties out (I’m marginally less engraged at the crew and more annoyed at the letter of the targeting rule that doesn’t allow for discretion on Haines’ ejection, but still all-around pissed), but it was still found wanting.  We did get our first just-whip-your-man sack from the DL this season courtesy of Shiro Davis, but Goff found himself with plenty of time on most downs.  The Bonney-outside, Duke-inside thing looked even more dubious after Bonney got absolutely fricasseed by Kenny Lawler for a 4th-down TD, but Thomas went on to have his own foibles on the edge.  A rotating cast of young ‘uns from P.J. Locke to Davante Davis to Kris Boyd came in and most left with at least a scorch mark or two.  There are much better days ahead given the youth and talent on hand in the secondary, but for the moment we’re stuck in no-man’s land where no man coverage (and no zone) seems to click consistently.

Special Teams

Guess we’re in for a roller-coaster season in the third phase.  A roller coaster beats last season’s express elevator to hell, but it’s still tough to see a down night on the heels of last week’s explosive effort. 

Kick return was a night-long circus.  A Cal offsides prevented the rarely-seen live-ball recovery inside the return team’s 20 yard line, and the ensuing fair catch with 10 yards of room to run wasn't a prize winner, either.  At least we were smart enough to get out of our "you don't have to kick to Daje" formation with he and Gray split, but somehow Gray kept fielding all the kicks anyway.  The decision to bring out a kick that had chased him ten yards back into the end zone was…unique, but those are the risks you take when you put a true freshman back there.

*Checks program*

Oh.  Never mind.

OK, so I’m just putting off talking about the extra point.  And I’d rather not ever speak of it again.  The highlight of the drive back from the stadium was hearing Craig Way intone that it was "only the third missed extra point of Rose’s career."  Not quite sure "only" is the right word there, but Rose has to be the saddest dude in Austin right now so I won’t pile on. 

The Bottom Line

A little enforced reflection time made it easier to appreciate the positives in this one.  Foremost among them was the simple fight that the team showed when all hope looked lost down 21 points in the fourth.  Heard’s ebullient self-confidence may well be infectious, and getting a team to really believe is the first step before it can really achieve. 

If you’d told me at 45-24 that we'd have the chance to get our hearts broken, I'd have taken it.  And if you'd told me after Notre Dame that the defense would be listing but that we'd put up more than 600 yards on any legitimate D1 team, I'd have taken that trade in a minute and counted on Strong and Bedford to get things squared away on their side of the ball.

Hopefully they can work fast, though - Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State hit town in a week and looking to pick up where Goff left off.  At least they'll have to worry about Jerrod Heard picking up where he left off this week, too.

Hook 'em.