Fluster Zach Maynard
Early in the season, Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard was not a particularly good quarterback. In two of the first five games, he completed less than 50% of his passes and then threw seven of his 11 interceptions on the season against UCLA and USC in a three-week stretch that marked the low point of the season for the Golden Bears.
After that, as the Cal running game got on track behind the running of mighty mite back Isi Sofele, Maynard reduced his turnovers as he adjusted to head coach Jeff Tedford's notoriously complex offense and Tedford made some adjustments to his notoriously complex offense to help his quarterback.
As a result, Maynard began to take care of the football -- only one interception in the last four games -- and notched his three highest completion percentages of the season to finish the year.
The left-hander still struggled at times with his accuracy, particularly when throwing out patterns that require velocity, but looked especially strong throwing touch passes and allowing his big, playmaking receivers Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones to go get the football.
Tedford also started using more play-action bootlegs to help get Maynard on the move, where he throws effectively moving left and can use his athleticism to threaten defenders on the edge and force them to decide between stopping his scramble and leaving their defensive assignment or allowing him to pick up yardage with his legs. On one play against Arizona State, Maynard scrambled that direction and lofted a pass over a defender to running back CJ Anderson, who took it the distance, illustrating just how dangerous Maynard can be outside the pocket.
Because Maynard does scramble almost exclusively to his left, the Texas defensive end on that side of the field will have to keep from speed-rushing themselves out of the play and allowing Maynard that exit route out of the pocket. If Texas can keep him in the pocket and get pressure in his face, the defense should put itself in a position to force some turnovers. Obviously, that's the desire against any quarterback, but Maynard seems particularly susceptible to making bad decisions and having his footwork break down when he doesn't have the option of scrambling and has to step into throws while being hit.
Win the turnover battle
As with putting pressure on the quarterback, this one seems like a no-brainer, but it's one of the most important facets of the game. According to Mack Brown, if Texas can end up +2 in the turnover battle, the Longhorns have an extremely high chance to win the game. Turn it over multiple times as the offense did against Baylor and the odds of winning decrease tremendously.
Against Texas A&M, the defensive backs came up with three game-changing interceptions, including the pick-six by Carrington Byndom that helped swing momentum early in the second half. If the front four, lead by defensive ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, now presumably healthy after a late-season shoulder injury, can get pressure on Maynard, the secondary should have some opportunities to come up with big plays. Time for the money-makers to make some more for themselves.
On the other side of the equation, the major key offensively besides successfully running the football will be for the two quarterbacks to take care of the ball. Mack Brown has indicated that the team will revert to the two-quarterback system with freshman David Ash and sophomore Case McCoy consistently rotating in and out of the game.
Both quarterbacks will have to take care of the football and avoid the costly mistakes that plagued McCoy against Baylor and Ash throughout most of his starts during the middle part of the season. The hope is that the younger Ash has at least made some positive developments in that respect during bowl practice and recovered some of the confidence that he lost late in the season.
As an illustration of just how important turnovers are to winning and losing, Texas was +8 in turnover margin in victories this season and -13 in losses. For the Golden Bears, the splits were not quite as pronounced as -- +8 in wins and only -4 overall in losses. Clearly, when the Longhorns were bad, they were extremely bad, but the lows weren't quite as low for Cal, despite the beat downs from UCLA and USC. Win the turnover battle, win the game -- it will most likely be that simple.
Limit the big Cal receivers
Against Stanford, Maynard was at his best when he was identifying and exploiting one-on-one matchups against his two big receivers. Somewhat surprisingly for such a big wideout, Cal often uses Allen in the slot to allow him a two-way go against the cornerback defending him, a positioning that also allows Tedford to use him on wide-receiver screens, especially when the Golden Bears flex out a tight end to use as a blocker.
Allen's unique talent -- his ability both as a depth threat and as a playmaker who can turn a short screen into a long gain -- and the unique positioning create some issues for opposing defenses.
One major issue is that the defensive backs will often have to beat bigger tight ends in the screen game to Allen -- no easy task for players who will be giving up several inches and 30 or so pounds. Since neither tight end typically flexed presents much of a receiving threat outside of the redzone, Texas may opt to use a linebacker like Demarco Cobbs or a physical safety like Kenny Vaccaro to the field side. Whatever the case, if the Longhorn defenders matched up out there don't show an ability to beat those blocks, rest assured that Tedford will notice it and exploit it ruthlessly until Manny Diaz can come up with an answer.
The other major issue is how Texas chooses to defend Keenan Allen. This season, Carrington Byndom has typically been the boundary corner, but since he's the best cover corner Duane Akina has on his roster, he may draw the assignment of shadowing Allen.
Whomever Texas chooses, Diaz will have to provide help over the top because Allen is too good to leave in single coverage. On the other side of the field, that means that Diaz has another decision to make about whether to put a safety over the top of Marvin Jones as well.
Once again, Maynard has shown an ability to exploit any one-on-one matchups, but Texas may want to walk up a safety at times to outnumber the Cal running game that can use Maynard effectively on the zone read if defenses decide they want to sit back in coverage. In the defensive end pinches too hard in those situations, Maynard the blocking ability of Allen and a flexed out tight end can result in major gashes to a defense, as Arizona State found out the hard way.
Run the football
As much as Mack Brown wants to have a balanced football team, the fact of the matter is that the passing offense sputtered for most of the season and the offense only looked in top form when the offensive line was winning battles at the point of attack and the running backs breaking tackles to get into the secondary.
Against Cal, the strength of the defense is probably up the middle, even though Stanford had some success with power-running formations, but the weakness is probably on the outside of the Golden Bear 3-4. The experienced inside linebackers, senior DJ Holt and Mychal Kendricks, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, are both strong players who struggled at times against the Cardinal but mostly turned in stellar senior season.
The outside linebackers, however, may be the weakness of the Cal defense that the Longhorns could exploit with some flex outside zone and the jet sweep game, which may feature Marquise Goodwin in an expanded role there.
However Bryan Harsin opts to attack the multiple fronts that Cal will show, the offensive line needs a strong performance against the mostly 3-4 Golden Bear front that includes some solid size, but no real space-eaters that can't be moved. Coming off the bowl practices that should have allowed center Dom Espinosa to hear the ankle injury that slowed him during the season and increase the unit's cohesiveness overall, there's reason to expect fewer missed assignments. Emerging leader Mason Walters, who thankfully won't have to block for his grandmother on Wednesday, may need to lead the charge as the unit completes the transition into a nasty, physical group.
As always, the unit will need to avoid giving up negative plays that put the Longhorns behind the chains and more pressure on the young quarterbacks. As the season has indicated, that's a recipe for disaster.
A few other odds and ends
- Another key will be scoring touchdowns in the redzone for Texas. In losses, the Longhorns scored touchdowns on less than 30% of the team's trips deep into opponent territory. In victories, that number climbed to 60%, still not an overly impressive number, but one that was obviously good enough to win games. The loss of Fozzy Whittaker in the Wildcat has hurt tremendously and the hope for Texas fans is that Harsin has found some other combination to use that will convert those trips into touchdowns.
- As Manny Diaz mentioned in a press availability, the Texas defense will have to be aware of Cal running back Isi Sofele, essentially a more sturdily built Tongan Darren Sproles, and maintain contain because the diminutive back likes to reverse and did so against Arizona State twice for big gains. Sofele is a prototypical zone runner with one-cut ability and a low center of gravity that makes him difficult to tackle. Linebacker Emmanuel Acho struggled against a similar back in A&M's Ben Malena, who is probably a step slower than Sofele, so it's not out of the question for Sofele to break some tackles and pick up yards after contact.
- When Cal struggled against Arizona State's running game, defensive end Trevor Guyton had some issues with his run fits. Will Texas run more zone plays in an attempt to take advantage of that?
- The Golden Bear defense was solid in avoiding giving up plays of 10 yards or more (32nd nationally), but roughly one-sixth of those plays went for 30 or more yards -- when the Cal defense was gashed, it was gashed badly and may have been partly a result of some tackling issues at times in the secondary. Most of those long plays came against the pass (16 of 25).