Currently, the most famous California Golden Bears alumni in the NFL is Aaron Rodgers, perhaps the best football player in the league today. Ergo, because of the success of Rodgers, many people associate the success of Cal football with a great passing game to unleash the offensive juggernaut.
While it's true that the Cal pass attack has been the key to making the offense evolve from solid to explosive, that's not been the foundation of this team's success in Jeff Tedford era. It started (like so many things in football) on the ground and pounding out those yards.
Ron Gould has churned out great Cal running backs year after year (six NFL-capable runners the past eight years) , and Jim Michalczik helped bring the power to unleash those backs to sizable gains year-after-year. When Michalczik left for the Raiders, that rush attack seemed to lose its focus as the Cal offensive line became woefully inconsistent, and so did the Cal offense right along with it.
Now that Michalczik is back, the Cal running attack has slowly worked its way back to respectability.
When Cal started the 2011 season, they seemed dedicated to try and pass the ball to open up the run attack. It looked like they were trying to make junior transfer Zach Maynard do as much as possible to try and win football games, which usually involved him targeting brother Keenan Allen and senior standout Marvin Jones. The run game took a backseat early in the season as Cal tried to stretch the field with the vertical passing game. Isi Sofele had never been the feature back, and the Cal offensive line had to work out a lot of the bad habits they learned the past two years.
Despite Maynard's obvious deficiencies (went to his first read a lot, interception machine, misread coverage, danced in the pocket, poor footwork), the Bears got off to a fast 3-0 start in non-conference play. Meanwhile Sofele churned out the yards week after week, but he wasn't quite certain in the position, and his backups C.J. Anderson, Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson were struggling to handle their respective workloads.
But the defenses soon got faster and stronger, and Maynard had two atrocious games against USC and UCLA (and one pretty mediocre contest against Utah), throwing costly pick after costly pick. It was becoming clear that even if Cal could use the big play ability to move down the field, they wouldn't be able to capitalize because eventually their QB would make a misread in coverage and throw a pick to the wrong player.
So they went back to basics. They ran the football again.
After running an average of 30 times at a pace of three to four yards per carry the first four-five meaningful contests, Cal has upped it to 40-45 carries a game the past three and average about four to six yards per carry. Sofele has gotten better as conference play has progressed. He actually had a strong 100+ yard game against Oregon (but only was given the ball 12 times), then struggled against good USC and Utah teams, but after that he's started to take off, amassing 330 yards the last two weeks.
Cal ran over Washington State and Oregon State by using the ground game and a platoon of backs (Sofele, Anderson, Mike Manuel, Deboskie-Johnson, Brendan Bigelow) all getting touches to keep defenses on their heels. The Cal run attack has amassed nearly 300 yards per game the past two victories after only topping 150 yards once in their first seven FBS contests.
Just as importantly, the run blocking has improved. HydroTech of the California Golden Blogs with the report.
tory of the Game #1: Offensive Line Dominates. And I mean, DOMINATES. The Bear offensive line was just opening up huge, gaping holes in that Beaver defense. It was just ridiculous how good the run blocking was this game. Half way through the game I started thinking how the Beaver run defense looked like a high school team the way they were just getting man-handled.
It remains to be seen whether the O-line production just a consequence of the badness of the teams (WSU 70th, OSU 88th, UCLA 104th in running yards per carry allowed) they've faced. But there's no doubt that the holes have been bigger the longer the season has progressed, and that the running backs are becoming more confident in hitting their lanes than they were the past few seasons.
Just as importantly, the offensive line has committed a lot of penalties, but they somehow have managed not to let it kill them.
Despite the penalties against the Cal offensive line (holding, false starts), they pretty much made back all the yardage. It was kind of ridiculous how they were just getting the yardage back like it ain't no thang. First and 20? No problem. Isi up the middle for a 12 yard gain. Penalty negated. Done. Why can't we do this all the time?
If Cal expects to have any chance this Saturday against the Stanford Cardinal, they'll need to be able to show they can chew up the yards on the ground and keep Stanford's offense off the field. Whereas Oregon used their superior speed and big play ability to chew away at Stanford's defense, Cal needs to have Sofele and Anderson be ready to try and gash yards against Stanford and only rely on the pass when needed. Maynard proved he can be a good enough complement for the Bears run game and horizontally stretch the field moving from sideline to sideline to keep defenses guessing about what could come next.
These are all positive signs for the Cal offense. They might not be ready to beat elite teams consistently, but the return of a solid run game will pay huge dividends down the road.