A 2-0 start, a No. 11 ranking, and a hot seat that has turned into a love-fest in no way reduce the heartburn Texas coach Charlie Strong feels.
Last week, he was concerned about a short week, injuries and the Longhorns being over confident against UTEP. Saturday, a young UT team plays its first road of the season. In 2015, the Longhorns were 1-4 in true road games.
“That’s the concern right there,” Strong said of playing at Cal (1-1) Saturday night (9:30 p.m. CST, ESPN). “We’re taking a young team into a hostile environment. We’ll be a little out of our element but we need to grow up quickly.
“This is a business trip. We’re going to have to treat it like a business trip. We’re going to have to grow up and grow up quickly and play well.”
Item one on Strong’s travelling list involves defense.
“I told the team we need to make sure we pack our defense,” he said. “We can take the crowd out of the game if we play good defense.”
Senior safety Dylan Haines, who suffered a concussion in the opener and missed last week’s game, is scheduled to return to the lineup. That’s good news for a secondary that figures to get plenty of action against a veteran quarterback.
Davis Webb, a graduate transfer who was previously at Texas Tech, is No. 2 nationally in passing yards per game (481.5), and tied for first with nine touchdowns. The Bears are third in the nation in total offense at 617 yards per game.
“Webb hangs in the pocket and delivers the ball,” Strong said. “He does a great job finding receivers and managing the offense. It will be a big challenge for the secondary. We need to get pressure on the quarterback. He’s gonna complete some passes. We just can’t allow balls thrown over our heads and we need to limit yards after the catch.”
Last week against UTEP the Longhorns were able to experiment with a 3-3-5 defensive scheme. Two of the emerging defensive players who help make that scheme work are 6-foot-3, 225-pound sophomore Breckyn Hager and 6-foot-2, 260-pound freshman Malcolm Roach. They’re playing the “fox” position, which is an end-linebacker hybrid. Roach and Hager were named the team’s “co-champions” on defense for the UTEP game.
“I told the defensive coaches I want to see two guys play – Hager and Roach,” Strong said. “The reason is, they just go. Whatever is in the way, they’re going to it. And it’s gonna be a headache for somebody.”
UT defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson hinted at what the Longhorns hope to do against Webb and the Cal offense.
“We need to confuse the QB with different looks,” Bedford said.
“I think he just gets a little rattled in the pocket whenever there’s pressure,” Jefferson said.
Last year in Austin, Texas freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard, who has now moved to receiver, set a school record with 527 yards of total offense in a 45-44 loss to the Bears. He passed for 364 yards in that game, but that turned out to be the high-water mark for an ineffective UT passing attack. In the nine Big 12 games that followed, the Longhorns totaled 1,156 yards through the air.
This season the Longhorns have found consistent quarterback play in freshman Shane Buechele, who is completing 71.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception.
“It’s like that important piece of the puzzle you were missing,” Jefferson said of Buechele. “Not only is he playing well, he’s handling himself very well as a young man. You can’t ask for more, honestly.”
Even with Buechele in charge of the up-tempo attack, it’s not a pass-happy operation. Texas has attempted 60 passes out of 161 offensive snaps. Considering that Cal is allowing an FBS-worst 6.85 yards per rushing attempt, running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III will get plenty of carries.
Solid defense and a dominant running game could help ease the jitters of an inexperienced team.
“We all have to be ready for this week, because we’re going in as the big dogs,” Jefferson said.