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Shooting From the Hip: Cal 50, Texas 43

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NCAA Football: Texas at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

It’s late and that was ugly, and I’m at Willie Waylon McClyde’s place watching the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan to cheer up. So let’s get to it and through it.

OFFENSE

About half this game went like you’d have thought on offense. Outside of some braindead penalties, the Longhorns took it to the Bears on the ground to the tune of three football fields’ worth of ground-pounding punishment. Chris Warren showed the tackle-breaking power we came to expect from his 250+ pound frame, and D’Onta Foreman shouldered his way forward in a crowded 2017 NFL running back class (and yes, folks, he’s jumping early) with a dynamic 157-yard showcase that featured speed, power and a Swoopesian end zone dive that staked Texas to a promising 24-14 lead.

The Longhorns followed up that score with a devastating Swoopes INT on a high throw that teed up Cal for a short-field score that brought them within three, but that wasn’t the pick that doomed Texas. Sterlin Gilbert stayed aggressive after that play, and the Longhorns mixed run and pass effectively to cap off a drive with a trademark 41-yard Buechele drop-in to Jacorey Warrick to get Texas back up ten.

Then the D got rammed in the ass following a 42-yard kick return (more on both of those phenomena below), and when Texas came out to answer we saw the play that turned the course of the game - and potentially the season if the Texas O can’t figure out how to respond.

Buechele took a shot down the sideline to John Burt, and left the ball low and inside where it was picked off on a heady play by Cal free safety Luke Rubenzer. That INT seemed to violate a core precept of the 5333 offense - namely, that one-two-three throws up the sideline arrive before even the rangiest of safeties get a chance to intervene.

But following that turnover, Sterlin Gilbert and the Texas O seemed to violate an even more fundamental precept of this offensive attack. Because to this (admittedly vodka-addled) observer, from that point on in the contest they looked like they were playing scared.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.”

- Syrio Forel

It’s hard to know how much of that is perception, how much of that is reality, and how much of that was a mix of mindless penalties (including some holding calls which, it must be said, went only one way in this one,) but was there ever a moment after that play that Texas looked to dictate the flow of the game and get a dreadful Cal D on its heels?

The Longhorns’ lone touchdown following the Buechele INT was a 47-yard D’Onta scamper where the Blue and Gold Sea parted following a jet sweep fake to Heard that was likely overplayed due to Cal’s lingering PTSD from everything in a 13 jersey. But the rest of the second half consisted of tentative runs, play-it-safe hitches uncomplimented by deep ball danger and an over-though QB swap system that did more to hinder the Horns’ offensive rhythm than it did to discombobulate Cal’s D.

Some of that assessment may be outcome-based, but I’ll be damned if the offense conveyed any confidence following that deep shot INT. The 5333 isn’t a mindless chuck-and-heave approach, but it’s got to have some chunk-gaining, swashbuckling element at all times or it ceases to be what it is. The Longhorn OL can’t get intimidated into false starts or coaxed into holds by awful front sevens, but neither can it throw up its hands and admit defeat the first time it gets behind the chains, either.

There’s plenty of game-breaking talent on this offense, but if they can’t keep the mindset - and the penalty-free focus - to keep the pedal to the metal they’ll end this season wondering what might have been.

DEFENSE

Is it cool if we skip this part?

No?

Dammit.

Paul Boyette and Breckyn Hager issued near-identical quotes when asked about tonight’s defensive debacle:

“It wasn’t a talent issue. It wasn’t a scheme issue. It was an execution issue.”

And while there’s likely plenty of truth to that statement, I feel like there’s another quote that deserves primacy in this situation. I really, really hate to break it out, but here goes:

“Look with your eyes.”

- Syrio Forel

The great Braavosi swordsman believed first and foremost in a clear-eyed view of the world untainted by preconception, ideology or any other factor that could prevent you from spotting the thing that would get you killed.

As the Texas defense already died one death tonight, let’s go ahead and focus our eyes on the indisputable fact that will keep the Longhorn spinning their wheels if it’s not sorted in short order.

The Longhorn pass defense, despite the ministrations of three secondary-focused dudes in Strong, Vance Bedford and Clay Jennings, was an out-and-out disaster.

The run D, as has been its custom in this young season, acquitted itself well. Even with an all-or-nothing call that turned RB Vic Enwere loose for a 54-yard almost TD/DeSean Jackson shithead fumble (which was inexplicably not awarded to Texas) the Bears managed a mediocre 2.8 yards a pop on the ground. Texas fought blockers, ID’d keys and kept a pair of home run hitting tailbacks from managing much more than a soft liner into the gap.

But when the pass defense keeps hanging curveballs to Mark Trumbo, you’re going to put up plenty of crooked numbers.

The Longhorn secondary blew it about every way you can blow it against the Bear Raid. Missed tackles in the screen game? Check. Soft play on in-breaking slants and the like? Check. Blown assignments, utter lack of awareness and all-out refusal to compete on deep balls up the sideline? Check and mate.

Davis Webb might have hit more throws under pressure tonight than he’s hit in his career to date, but at least half of those tosses should have had a Burnt Orange hand on them had Texas managed to sort things out on the back end. Instead we had missed assignments on simple switch routes, tentative play on underneath routes and mindless drifts inside by outside corners that let edge receivers spring unmolested for TDs. Can all those be chalked up to execution errors? To an extent, sure - we weren’t calling a clownball game and had guys aligned to make plays on most of Cal’s snaps. But if you have people blowing coverage after coverage and playing slow, hesitant and confused then you are either doing a poor job of communicating your defensive concepts or you’re dealing with a crew of card-carrying morons. Since the second isn’t fixable you sure hope you’re dealing with the first - but if the first isn’t sorted out posthaste this squad is looking at real trouble that won’t confine itself to just this season.

It wasn’t all disastrous - there were moments of legit pressure, Roach and Hager showed glimpses of the future as pass rushers and the game could have turned if any of (at least) four uncalled horsecollar holds on Longhorn pass rushers had been noticed by an outright incompetent umpire. But if the Longhorns want to make this season what it can be - and convince a there-for-the-taking Top Five recruiting class that the future holds Playoff-caliber promise - the coaches need to get the players playing up to their abilities lickety-damn split.

SPECIAL TEAMS

You play ugly games on offense sometimes. You play ugly games on defense sometimes. And sometimes when you do that, you win anyway because the third phase steps up and earns you some free net yards while coming through in clutch situations.

We’re still waiting on that game in the Charlie Strong Era.

Instead what we got were multiple Cal kick returns out past the 35, a brace of (admittedly long) missed FG’s from Trey Domingue, highly dubious kick return blocking and punt return block efforts that made Cal’s punt gunners look like Vasily Zaitsev and Simo Hayha. The olive on the ST’s shit sandwich came courtesy of Kris Boyd, who had a free run to the 35 on one kick return but instead looked down and thought he saw a 1 next to the 2 on his jersey number and tried to pull a Deion Sanders outrun-them-all-to-the-corner move that got him dumped at the 14 yard line. Brandon Jones came through with another blocked put that makes you itch to see his athleticism deployed on the actual factual defense, but by and large it was a losing effort in a one-score loss.

We all love Jeff Traylor’s silver tongue during recruiting season, but it’s time to put an iron boot up some guys’ asses on ST’s so the third phase doesn’t remain a lead weight around this team’s neck all season long.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As we headed into the season, I pounded the “2-1 is 2-1” mantra, assuming that Texas would fall to (a possibly overrated) Notre Dame squad and take care of business against a wildly unphysical Cal bunch. Texas flipped the script on that assumption in a way that’s hard to swallow right now, but 2-1 is still 2-1.

Every realistic and semi-realistic goal the Longhorns had coming into this season remain firmly in front of them, and the bye week comes at an opportune time to sort some shit out prior to kicking off conference play in Stillwater. But even in what’s looking to be a wildly subpar Big XII, it’s tough to trust that Texas can translate its young athletic ability into tangible, league-winning results.

Managing the team’s psyche may be as crucial as sorting out its assignment errors on the heels of this wildly frustrating, knuckle-bloodying loss, But if Strong and his staff can’t get both sorted out in the space of 14 days, Mason Rudolph and company will deliver an extremely rude awakening to conference play.

Let’s dust ourselves off and sort some shit out.

Hook ‘em.