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Cal’s best chance of beating Texas is to run the football

The Golden Bears have been successful running the football. For some reason, it’s taken a back seat to the passing game.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Poor Vic Enwere. Poor Khalfani Muhammad.

The two California Golden Bears running backs have carried the ball 33 times for 246 yards and a touchdown this season, an average of 7.5 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, quarterback Davis Webb has attempted 126 passes at 7.6 yards per attempt, including 72 throws in last week’s loss to San Diego State that featured only 22 runs.

The pure numbers paint a picture of a vastly underutilized run game in the Bear Raid offense run by head coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, harkening back to the days when Mike Leach would gratuitously ignore the running game when he was the head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders.

Fans who remember some of the contests between those Leach teams and the Longhorns might recall that the Red Raiders were always the most dangerous when running the football effectively.

Simply look at the current Tech team for further proof of that truism — quarterback Pat Mahomes is a superstar, but the Red Raiders can no longer run the football effectively without departed running back DeAndre Washington and numerous starters along the offensive line.

Last season, stopping the run was a key requirement to beating head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s team. Now Texas Tech doesn’t even attempt many runs — of the 174 plays run this season, only 50 of them have been passes.

What does all of this have to do with the Texas Longhorns?

Well, an overlooked part of last season’s loss was the inability of the Texas defense to stop the Cal running game, which rumbled for 283 yards and three touchdowns on 6.8 yards per carry.

No run was more damaging than the 74-yard touchdown given up to Muhammad during a 21-point third quarter for the Golden Bears.

Much like the 51-yard touchdown run that Texas allowed to UTEP running back Aaron Jones last week, the problem on the Muhammad run last year was a loss of gap control.

"We had a 3-technique in the A-gap, and the Fox (End) in the B gap, and they split us right down the middle when we’re boxed-up with the corner coming off the edge," said defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.

Then both of the safeties — back ups PJ Locke and Kevin Vaccaro — both took poor angles in attempting to track the play down and weren’t able to catch Muhammad after he found the vertical seam in the Longhorns defense.

Last weekend, the issue was senior linebacker Tim Cole drifting out of his run fit for no particular reason to allow Jones a similar vertical seam. And once again, a safety took a poor angle, this time DeShon Elliott, who may be a little too aggressive still in coming downhill instead of taking more conservative routes to the football.

As a result of last season’s success, Bedford expects to see more of the Cal run game this week.

"They want to run the ball a little bit more to try to balance their offense," Bedford said. "We expect them to run the football a little bit more, so we’ve been working on stopping the run."

The fundamentals of leverage, gap control, and hitting the proper run fits have been better this season for Texas with more experience and the emergence of defensive tackles like Paul Boyette, Poona Ford, and Chris Nelson as impactful players.

However, Cole’s big mistake and Elliott’s subsequent inability to track down Jones shows how prone the ‘Horns can be to the running game when the senior linebacker is in the game.

Perhaps Dykes and Spavital would bail out Texas by neglecting the run game. Perhaps the Longhorns have improved enough in that area to slow down Enwere and Muhammad if they do get the ball.

However it goes down, it seems clear that despite the dangerous aerial nature of the Cal Bear Raid, the biggest threat to a Texas road victory is an effective Golden Bears running game.