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Porous Cal run defense provides another opportunity for Texas

The return of numerous key pieces should help the ‘Horns run wild this weekend.

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NCAA Football: California at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Through two weeks, no defense has given up more yards per carry than the California Golden Bears at 6.85 yards per attempt, so the Texas Longhorns once again have an opportunity to exploit a porous run defense.

With injuries to five offensive line contributors (four of them starters), starting tight end Caleb Bluiett, and starting running back D’Onta Foreman, the ‘Horns weren’t able to achieve the predicted success against the Miners last week, but this week should be different.

Head coach Charlie Strong expects all of those players to return — though right tackle Tristan Nickelson could miss another week after spending the UTEP game on crutches — and the Cal run defense may be worse than last week’s undersized opponent.

The statistics bear that out, as the Golden Bears ranked No. 116 in adjusted line yards per carry on standard downs, while the Miners ranked No. 70 in that category. With the Longhorns running the ball on 25 first downs against Notre Dame, it’s a good bet that Cal will see plenty of runs on standard downs.

One area where Texas should have tremendous success this weekend is running inside against the Cal defensive tackles — the starters are listed at 280 pounds and 285 pounds, respectively, and there’s only one player at the position listed at 300 pounds or more on the depth chart from fall camp.

So look for the ‘Horns to frequently call inside zone and “Momma,” the term by which offensive line coach Matt Mattox refers to power. The former play will give Texas a chance to displace those undersized defensive tackles by executing combo blocks against them, while power is a physical gap scheme often used with the 18-Wheeler package.

There also isn’t much of a risk of giving up tackles for loss to those defensive tackles or any of the Golden Bears defensive linemen, as Cal ranked tied for 92nd in tackles for loss in 2015 and returned a combined 9.5 tackles for loss along the defensive line.

UTEP, by contrast, returned 23 tackles for loss from last season’s group.

Moreover, any Texas running plays has a chance to become an explosive effort, as defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s group has allowed 19 runs of 10 or more yards through the first two games. Only three schools have allowed more, and one of them, Hawaii, has already played three games.

Many of the creases have resulted in even more substantial gains, with six runs going for 30 or more yards against the Golden Bears.

In the loss to San Diego State last week, Cal gave up 334 yards and three rushing touchdowns in allowing Donnel Pumphrey to break Marshall Faulk’s school record for career rushing yards.

The Aztecs run a pretty old-school offense that features multiple tight ends, so the ‘Horns will approach things in a different way. However, Texas should still be able to exploit several weaknesses with the Cal rush defense — an inability to beat blocks, poor tackling fundamentals, and a propensity by the safeties to take poor angles and run themselves out of play.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, no?

Foreman’s return in particular should allow Texas to break off some long runs, not to mention key blockers like Bluiett and Williams, who helped pave the way for 237 rushing yards and five touchdowns against Notre Dame.

And the presence of the junior running back and all of those blockers should help increase the effectiveness of senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes in his running package, as Foreman fits that scheme better and was an excellent blocker in the 18 Wheeler in the season opener.

Last season, the ‘Horns ran for 286 yards and six touchdowns against the Golden Bears, setting the mark to beat on Saturday.

Here’s guessing that’s possible.

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