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Texas vs. Cal: Five things to watch

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Is Cal’s offense really as good as the stats indicate?

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

Make no mistake about it, this is another big game for the Texas Longhorns and head coach Strong. During his short time as the head coach of the Longhorns, Strong’s teams haven’t faired all that well on the road.

If we exclude neutral site games, the Longhorns are just 3-5 during the only two previous seasons under Strong, including a 1-4 mark on the road last season.

But this team already feels different. And the more we watch the Longhorns play, the more it feels like they really have turned a corner as Charlie Strong continues to rebuild this program.

As Texas travels to Berkeley to take on the 1-1 California Golden Bears for the first road game of the season, we’ll be watching to see how Texas stacks up in a few key factors during this match-up.

1) Will Texas start this game well?

It’s the first road game. Texas is still relatively young. It’s a late kickoff of 9:30 p.m. CT. There are definitely some factors in play that could throw this team off out of the gates.

If Cal gets out to a quick double-digit lead, let’s say 14 points, it isn’t over by any means. This new Texas offense has shown it can put up points in a hurry. But losing momentum early in a road game against a Golden Bears offense that has the ability to put up points would put this Texas team in a spot it hasn’t been in yet this season.

Though it may be a back-and-forth game to start, I don’t see the Longhorns coming out sluggish enough to get into a huge hole. If nothing else, the ‘Horns are still the more talented team, especially on defense.

But there’s no question this will be another great test to see how this team responds to some different challenges this season. And starting the game well would be another big statement to the rest of the country in the early parts of this 2016 season.

2) Is Cal’s offense really that good?

Sure, Davis Webb and the Cal’s offense put up 51 points and 630 yards of offense in their first game followed by 40 points and 604 yards in their second game.

But that happened against Hawaii and San Diego State. And neither of those teams are the litmus test for defense this year in college football.

The Texas defense isn’t residing in the 90210 of college football defenses yet either. It still has work to do and areas where it needs to continue to develop before anyone gets close to calling it elite, or even great.

But the defense for the Longhorns certainly has more talent on it than what Hawaii and San Diego State are working with. And though Cal will put points on the board, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Cal’s offense is really that good or if poor defenses from opponents helped inflate some of their numbers across the board.

3) Will Texas get it’s first interception of the season?

On the note of the defense, last night while watching Houston and Cincinnati combine for five interceptions (including number eight and nine on the season for the Cincinnati Bears — yes, NINE), I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d see the Texas defense snag its first interception of the season this week against this pass-happy Cal team.

Davis Webb may have already thrown nine touchdown passes himself, but he’s also thrown three interceptions. Did I mention he’s played against Hawaii and San Diego State?

Texas probably doesn’t need to force an interception to still win this game. But of the few things the Longhorns did well last season, forcing turnovers was one of them. Their average of nearly one a game (.92) left them sitting at eighth in the nation by the time the season was over.

Forcing an interception or two in this game would hit Cal where it hurts most, through the air on offense.

4) Can the return teams for Texas make a big play or two?

The Golden Bears aren’t great on defense nor do they have good depth. And a team that’s weak on defense often means it will struggle with special teams coverage as well.

The return teams for the Longhorns have been quiet to start this season. But that all could change against a Cal kick coverage team that’s already allowed a touchdown (against SDSU) on a kickoff this season.

Texas should score a lot of points this game, and this very well could be another way the team gets points on the board.

5) How will the Texas run defense fare?

We’ve focused a lot on the defense so far. But heading into a game that could turn into a shoot-out, how the defense performs will be a key.

When San Diego State beat Cal last week, it had a 17-point lead heading into the fourth quarter before the Golden Bears clawed back to bring the game within five points.

The Aztecs went on to win the game in the end. But one of the positives they were able to do against Cal was hold the running backs to a total of 101 yards (if we take out Davis Webb’s -19) on the day.

You may have already heard this, and you’ll probably hear it again during game day. But making Cal one dimensional really will be a key in this game for the Texas defense. It’s one thing Coach Strong has been harping on since last season.

And taking a part of Cal’s offense away could help the defensive front get more opportunities to pin their ears back and attack Davis Webb in the pocket without having to worry about giving up huge chunks on the ground.

*****

If you’ve ever seen a late-night Pac 12 game before (aka #Pac12AfterDark), then you know these game can get whacky. There’s just something about playing on the west coast when the rest of the country is either fighting off going to bed, nice and liquored up, or both.

With two teams that have shown they can put up points in a hurry, this game could quickly get into that whacky mode. Then again, the Texas defense could flex its muscles and help give Texas a comfortable lead it can ride throughout the second half. We’ll see come Saturday night.