IN-DEPTH: Run of Show
BERKELEY -- Last season, the Louisiana Tech offense rushed for under 100 yards in a single game only once. In two of the three seasons in which he was the running backs coach for the Bulldogs, current California running backs coach Pierre Ingram produced two, 1,000-yard rushers.
Last Saturday, the Bears rushed for a pitiful 2.66 yards per carry, and after Brendan Bigelow ripped off 55 yards on the first, touchdown-scoring drive, Cal produced just six more yards on the ground throughout the rest of the first quarter, finishing the game with 93 yards.
"It just wasn't working. We ran the ball well early, and we didn't run it well late, so we were wasting snaps trying to run the football. We were trying to be successful, and that's what every week is," says Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who saw his true freshman quarterback Jared Goff attempt a record 63 passes.
"I hate throwing the football 60 times, because that means that you couldn't run the ball," Franklin says.
After runs to the A- and B-gaps succeeded early – on two of Cal's first four rushes – the Northwestern defensive line began to shift and move more as the game progressed, and as Bears tailbacks probed the inside – as Daniel Lasco did on a three-yard loss on first-and-10 at the Wildcats' 29-yard line in the second quarter – they found no room to run, and when they were able to squeeze through, they had to break several tackles, as Bigelow found out midway through the second quarter, when he was mobbed after just four yards on a first-and-10 at the Cal 30.
"For our running backs, if we can get our guy consistently in the second level, we feel like they can make some plays," says head coach Sonny Dykes. "That's something that we certainly have to clean up. We've got to be able to run the ball better than we did Saturday."
In the second half, the Bears went more to the outside, trying to beat Northwestern to the edge. That didn't work. Cal gained just 29 yards after halftime.
"We actually call the same plays. We only called two plays the whole night. Sometimes they bounce out, sometimes they stay in the box," says Franklin. "You give a ball to the running back, and he has a general area, but he may be running to the right tackle and end up at the left end. That's part of being a good player, and when the gaps aren't there, the way they're supposed to be, then they're searching for grass."
The simplicity of the offense puts the onus on the running back to read the line, and with the speed and power of Bigelow, Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad, if things click, they'll likely click in a big way.
"I think it's all preparation," Ingram says. "We're preparing this week to make explosive plays. I think that's going to show who we really are as a running back corps. The offense needs us to make explosive plays. Without that, we're going to get third-and-shorts and fourth-and-shorts and we need those long bursts that you saw other running backs this past week do."
Bigelow, for his part, was just a hair away from a potentially game-changing explosive run. On the final Cal possession of the first half, Bigelow rushed left on first-and-10 at the Northwestern 32, escaping a three-man rush from the Wildcats. Bigelow came up against defensive back Collin Ellis -- he of two pick-sixes on the night – and pulled his best Willie Mays Hays impression, rolling over the top of the Northwestern defender and landing on his feet. As the rest of the Wildcats defense stopped, Bigelow realized that no whistle had been blown, and kept running, ostensibly for a 32-yard touchdown, untouched.
Replay later overturned the score, as Bigelow's left shoulder appeared to touch the ground at the 27-yard line, and the Bears settled for a field goal to pull to within seven points.
"I still think he was up," Ingram smiles. "I don't believe he touched, but I'll just let that be. He'll get one where he stays up and he'll make ESPN eventually."
Last season, this week's opponent – Portland State – ranked 83rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision, allowing 403 yards of total offense per game, but were 25th among FCS schools in rush defense, allowing 127.55 yards per game.
"If you look throughout the country, I've said this forever: You take the top 20 FCS teams – they're 1AA to me – you take the top 20 of those, throw them into our deal, and the top five of them will be in the top 30 of anything, and I think everybody found that out," Franklin says. "Coaches, you know it. Players, it's hard to convince, because they say, ‘Well, we're playing so-and-so and they're not even Division I.' Ask Michigan. Ask everybody else. It's not necessarily that people are not prepared. They're just good. They're good players. Portland State, the Eastern Washington deal over at Oregon State, you watch the film of that game, they've just got good players."
This season, the Vikings boast five Football Bowl Subdivision transfers on the defensive line depth chart, including defensive tackle Joe Lopez (Oregon State), defensive end Cutter Baldock (Arizona State), defensive end Dame Ndiaye (Arizona), defensive tackle Junior Alexis (Miami) and defensive end Nick Alexander (Boise State).
"Last week, they were really vanilla with what they did," Dykes said of Portland State's 57-17 win over NAIA opponent Eastern Oregon. "They basically played primarily an even front, didn't show a whole lot, defensively. I think we're going to have to go back and look at some tape of last year of BYU, where their head coach was the defensive coordinator. He was brought up in an odd front. That's what he ran at BYU, that's what BYU is based out of since Bronco Mendenhall's been the head coach there. I think we'll see both. I think we'll see a bit of an even front and a bit of an odd front. They didn't have to do much last week, so there'll be some unknowns."
Though Franklin maintains that the emphasis of practices has not shifted – and will not shift throughout the season – that may not be the case with the game plan, particularly with No. 3 Ohio State on the docket for Week Three.
"You can't win football games playing the way that we played on offense, against any good football team," says Franklin. "You might beat a bad team, but you're not going to beat a good team the way that we played. We had every opportunity in the world. We had the momentum to put the game away, and our false starts and our mistakes, there were a couple of fluke things, but that's a part of football, and you've got to overcome it. We had a chance to overcome it, and we didn't."
Last week, the Bears showed a 12:9 pass-to-run ratio in the first quarter, and a 52:26 ratio the rest of the game. While Franklin insists that Goff's arm did not tire ("He throws it more than that every day in practice."), and while Dykes insists that the Bears won't go into any game with a pre-set ratio for runs vs. passes, it's hard not to expect a more balanced attack on Saturday. If the running backs and the offensive line don't get an ample opportunity to get into a rhythm – and, judging by the four drive-killing penalties by the offensive front during the season opener, they'll need whatever time they can get – rushing against the Buckeyes – who held Buffalo to a paltry 73 yards last week, and ranked 14th in the FBS last season in rushing defense (116.08 ypg) – will be an uphill battle, particularly because Ohio State will no longer be caught flat-footed by Bigelow.
"We don't ever go into a game and say ‘We want to be 50 percent run, 50 percent pass.' It just depends on what they're giving you and you want to do a good job of taking the easy things," says Dykes. "That's what our offense is built on, is, if you've got numbers in the box, run the ball, if you don't, then throw it and get the ball to the grass. Those are all things that – and it's funny, we don't talk about it much, but if you look last year at our stuff at Louisiana Tech, we ran the ball two more plays than we threw it, and it was certainly wasn't by design."
Given that the Bears threw the ball 64 times last week, there's a good chance that the Vikings will line up to stop the pass, at first, which will provide some soft spots underneath for either the running game, or short, underneath passes to the running backs.
On Saturday, Cal tailbacks caught six passes for 67 yards, led by three catches from Lasco and 36 yards on two catches by Bigelow.
"We run a bunch of different routes, so each guy has a specific route that he runs well," says Ingram. "You get Khalfani over the top, you get Lasco matched up with a linebacker, Bigelow's going to beat you to the sideline in a footrace. Each guy has a particular route that they do well, and we kind of try to simulate that, put them in a situation where they can get it done."
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