Obligatory reminder: The SMO is usually an emotional overreaction based on the game events the day before. It does not deal in logic or reason.
As Michigan State pulled further and further ahead of Notre Dame in South Bend, the doubts began to creep in. "Signature" win, was it? Yes, we assured ourselves. The Irish were very strong two weeks ago and we were better.
Nope. After two weeks of riding high, we now get two weeks to simmer over an ugly loss to a bad team. Bye week is gonna be unpleasant for the squad, I would imagine. (And, by the way, I'm not touching the non-touchdown by the Cal running back on the last real play of the game.
Yeah, Texas picked the ball up; and yeah, "no immediate recovery" sounded like a kind of nonsensical explanation; but it would have been getting the ball back on a technicality. Cal beat us and they deserved to beat us.)
After 68 points in the first half, the teams combined for a scoreless third quarter. In the space of 15 minutes of play, a 2-point deficit went from seemingly insignificant to a serious cause for concern. The Texas offense, which spent most of the first half cutting through the Cal defense like a hot knife through butter, suddenly couldn't sustain a drive. Luckily, the Cal offense didn't have any better luck in the quarter as Texas finally started getting off the field on third downs.
The scariest moment in last night's game came in the first quarter, as Shane Buechele headed to the locker room with what looked for all the world like a head injury. Word came from the broadcast booth that it was a chest injury, which at least brought a moment of relief that the true freshman hadn't suffered a concussion. Shane would return to the sideline but for a couple of possessions, the coaching staff stuck with Tyrone Swoopes to run the full offense -- unlike his usual role running just the 18-wheeler package.
Early returns were encouraging as Swoopes was not perfect but completed a few passes to keep the Cal defense honest. On his third possession, though, he threw a pick that ended up arguably being the most important play of the game. Swoopes' throw was far too tall for an open Collin Johnson, leading to a tip-drill interception. Cal capitalized with a score to get within three. Had Texas--as it had consistently to that point--scored on that possession, they'd have been up by 13 or 17. That 10-to-14 point swing was crucial.
Buechele would return for the next Longhorn possession and duly lead the Horns to yet another touchdown, with a beautiful pass to Jacorey Warrick. Speaking of which...
Optimistic: Jacorey Warrick
I'm a sucker for a good senior makes good after years of sweating for the program story, and Warrick epitomizes it. His touchdown catch to put Texas up 31-21 in the second quarter was technical craftsmanship itself. Having created about a half step lead on the defender, Warrick created the final bit of space he needed to catch Buechele's perfect toss by subtly extending his arm into the Cal defender's chest, all while making sure his feet stayed on the right side of the end line. He's become a massive part of the offense and he's earned it, after six catches for 35 yards in 2015.
Optimistic: The Rest of the Season
The rest of Texas' games will come against Big 12 opponents, none of which exactly look like world-beaters. Despite not performing the way we'd all hoped in Berkeley, Texas has every opportunity to remain on track for a clear improvement over last year and be set up for a big run in 2017--which, as you'll recall, was what we hoped for as the season began.
So now the question will become: how does this young team respond to adversity? After hearing for two weeks how wonderful they were, will a bad loss completely derail them? Or will they shrug it off and take out their frustrations on an uninspiring Oklahoma State in a couple of weeks? The conference is bad, and Texas certainly still has achance to compete for a Big 12 title. If nothing else, by default. But if they allow this awful game to affect them beyond the next few days, we may have been early in proclaiming Charlie Strong can relax in terms of job security.
On one hand, when Sterlin Gilbert drew up just about any running play, there was plenty of real estate available, Swoopes out of the 18-Wheeler, Warren and Foreman up the middle--the line as a group did a fantastic job of run blocking. And aside from a few counterexamples, the Texas QBs (mostly Buechele) had time to throw in the pocket.
But. Some key penalties on the O-Line basically ended several Texas drives. Holdings and false starts turned possible points into empty possessions, including--not to pick on one guy--one of each on Zach Shackelford to kill big third-quarter possessions.
Neutral: Shane Buechele
It was never going to be sunshine and rainbows forever with a true freshman at quarterback, and there were some limitations of youth on display in Berkeley. Buechele was by no means bad for most of the game and every mistake was fixable, but the decision-making was much more freshman-like than in the first two games--in particular the second-quarter INT where he just didn't see the safety over the top.
One of the most impressive things about the youngster against Notre Dame was that he didn't just stare down his receiver on each pass, but last night that was something of an issue. Being on the road for the first time may well have had something to do with it.
Still, the kid showed again why there's so much general optimism surrounding him going forward. The aforementioned throw to Warrick and several other right-on-the-money passes were big time, as we have come to expect from Boo.
I wanted to put this in "neutral" despite the insane numbers, in acknowledgment of the difficulties of playing against an offense like this. And after the third quarter they almost had me. But when the D needed stops in the fourth quarter, they were confused and overmatched. My instinct is that's on the coaching staff more than the players, but whoever is to blame, the D simply couldn't get it done throughout the first half or in the clutch.
Texas had an awful lot of blown coverages and miscommunications in the secondary, and it's hard to say how much of that is due to Cal's sophisticated passing attack vs just plain screw-ups. But it kept on happening, and on Cal's decisive scoring drive they couldn't even seem to get the right personnel on the field. Honestly, maybe we should just be glad
The most frustrating thing--and again, credit the Bear Raid--was the defense's inability to get off the field on third down. Cal converted an uncomfortable number of third-and-long opportunities, which I define here as more than 5 yards to gain. Lots of great play calls by Sonny Dykes in those situations, but you simply have to force punts when you get a chance to in a game like this. They did well at it in the third quarter but otherwise, it was ugly.
Still, though, plenty of Davis Webb's long passes were simply perfect. The coverage was frequently solid and only a perfect throw would do, and he made the perfect throw repeatedly. A pass rush seemed like the only way to stop him. When they couldn't get one, the big plays rained down on the defense like righteous judgment from heaven.
Pessimistic: Sonny Dykes' Relationship with Reality
Dude went apoplectic over so many calls that were clearly correct. Got kind of silly.
Ten points in the second half against what is, frankly, a bad Cal defense. We knew coming in that the name of the game would be to outscore the Bears, and you simply can't be limited to just 10 in the entire second half.
I understand they scored 33 in the first half, and that you don't blame the offense when you lose 50-43. I do! And, I also understand they would probably have scored even more--and Cal would have scored less--if not for the first half injury to Buechele that led to the aforementioned game-turning interception.
But ten points in the second half, where you don't really even threaten the end zone aside from Foreman's long run, just doesn't cut it in a game like this. I'm not sure how much of it had to do with Buechele possibly not being 100%, as much of the success of the first half was attributable to Gilbert opening it up and letting Boo throw it deep; there was much less of that in the second half.
Given this is an emotional reaction post and not high level analysis, I won't try to explain it. What I will say is that as the second half wore on, the feeling that has defined this season--"we can score anytime with this offense"--slipped away. There just wasn't any rhythm.
And sometimes that happens, of course--a rhythm-based offense can be thrown off, and you just work out the kinks and get back on track. But tonight Texas didn't have that luxury as the Bear Raid kept the pressure on all night and ultimately proved too much,
Pessimistic: Kickoff Coverage
Especially in a shootout, nothing kills the momentum of a touchdown like giving up a big kick return immediately afterward. Cal opened up huge running lanes on several occasions, right through the middle of the Texas kick coverage team. It's something the coaching staff will need to get cleaned up as conference play begins.
Pessimistic: Clock Management
How do you punt with under 2 minutes left, down by a touchdown?
Pessimistic: Being Awake Near 2 AM to Watch That
I am no longer a young person, unless you insert the words "middle aged" between "young" and "person." Staying up that late to watch Texas look more clueless than they have so far this year on defense, and to see the offense stall like that in the second half, was kind of soul crushing. In fact, it's 1:51 AM as I type this and I'm just not that pleased about having stayed awake to experience that game.
It'll all be forgotten if this is one of 2-3 losses on the season, and the guys right the ship. There's nothing inherently wrong with losing by a touchdown (I know, should have been two touchdowns) to a Pac-12 team on the road, especially with a young team. But if this turns out indicative of what's to come--long stretches of the offense stalling, lots of confusion on defense--the optimism of the first two weeks could dissipate in a hurry.