Keys to the Game vs. California

Akshay Mirchandani

Make it easy on Heard

Redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard got the start for Texas against Rice and didn’t disappoint, completing 4 of 7 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns, while also running for 96 yards. Heard is going to be tested this week against California, a team that is No. 5 in the Pac-12 in total defense, making it crucial that the Longhorns make it easy on him. That means taking the pressure off with big plays on special teams, like senior wide receiver Daje Johnson’s punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter against Rice. Or freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson recovering a fumble and returning for a touchdown. Those are the kinds of plays that take the pressure off a young quarterback like Heard. Heard is a talented and electric player, but he’s not a quarterback that’s going to go out and win a game by himself at this stage. He’s going to need help from the players around him, especially against California.

More great special teams plays

Lost in all the excitement about Heard was how good special teams was Saturday. Johnson’s aforementioned touchdown punt return gave the Longhorns a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The senior ended up with 119 punt return yards and took home Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Senior cornerback Duke Thomas had a 56-yard punt return later in the first quarter that put Texas on the Rice six-yard line, and senior running back Johnathan Gray punched the ball in to go up 21-0. If Johnson goes back to being a dangerous guy in the return game, it adds another dimension to the Longhorns. Big plays on special teams spark other parts of the team, and Texas is going to need another nice showing from that unit if it hopes to beat California.

Defense needs to show up

Texas actually did a decent job of putting pressure on the Rice offense. The problem was that the Longhorns couldn’t finish plays. Head coach Charlie Strong said in his Monday press conference that Texas missed eight sacks against Rice. The team simply couldn’t get off the field, and Rice took advantage, piling up 462 yards of total offense. That’s not going to fly against California. The Golden Bears have the No. 1 pass offense and No. 2 scoring offense in the Pac-12. That’s thanks to junior quarterback Jared Goff, who has passed for 315 yards per game, six touchdowns and two interceptions. Texas has to make those big plays on defense, or California and Goff will carve them up.