BERKELEY -- Over the first four games of the season, the California offensive line was, in a word, horrid. The Bears allowed an average of 3.5 sacks per game, and the rushing game averaged a paltry 3.02 yards per rushing attempt.
Even after center Chris Adcock and backup center/right guard Matt Cochran went down with injury, the offensive line started to improve on its pass protection, allowing an average of 2.3 sacks per game, but the rushing game was still anemic, at best, as Cal averaged 2.57 yards per carry.
"Every game, it's just working on little things, finding something every day in practice to work on and get better at it and just being consistent with your technique, because the effort's been there," says offensive line coach Zach Yenser. "The effort's been there. We can win games with effort. But, once we start combining effort and our technique on a consistent basis, then that's when this offensive line up front can grow into something special, because they're going to be there for three years together."
Before the Oct. 26 game against Washington, Cal shuffled the deck. Jordan Rigsbee took over at center for redshirt senior Mark Brazinski and true freshman Chris Borrayo burned his redshirt to start at left guard. Freddie Tagaloa was demoted from starting left tackle to back-up right guard, replaced by redshirt freshman Christian Okafor.
"We're trying to find the right combination of guys, and I feel like we've got a really good combination," says Yenser. "I think the biggest thing, is that each week, the line's playing more confident, and it helps. This is the third week in a row that we've played the same five. It's huge. We've talked about it since Day One, about that continuity, and we talked about that right before Adcock got hurt. I really felt like we were starting to come together, and then it just got shuffled back."
Since the line was shuffled, Cal has averaged 2.33 sacks per game, and 4.6 yards per carry on the ground. Finally, it seems, both pass protection and run blocking are on the same page.
"I think it's definitely the shuffle," said starting right tackle Steven Moore -- the one constant on the line this season, save for Rigsbee. "The changes have definitely helped us as an offensive line, rushing. You can tell that by the statistics, but the running backs and us have gotten on the same page, so that's helped us out, too."
Does Yenser – the first-year line coach – feel vindicated?
"You see the growth each week in these guys, and again, I'm going to point out I'm very positive with the guys – you've done this right, but let's work on this," Yenser says. "I think they respond well to it, and have responded well to it, and again, I'm proud of them, because I've seen, from where they've come from the spring – just a group that was all over the place – and we're getting better, but we know we're not as good as we are. There's a lot, a lot, a lot of potential in that room. We talk about it all the time: Potential doesn't win games. It has to be your performance. If we can keep building, and we have to finish this season strong, you finish this season strong and you springboard with a little bit of confidence and you get an offseason with Damon [Harrington, strength and conditioning coach], it's going to be a full 12 weeks in the winter, and then spring ball and then this, a full cycle with Damon, you're going to see leaps and bounds by those guys in strength numbers up front."
Just a week ago, Yenser and his wife had the line over for dinner – as they do every week – and after chowing down, Yenser and his charges sat down to watch the same game that the entire nation was watching: Stanford vs. Oregon.
The Cardinal and its power running attack beat, bullied and bludgeoned the speedy Ducks to the tune of 274 yards rushing on 66 attempts, as Stanford passed the ball just 13 times.
"Whether it's Stanford, it's always just, you love to see good offensive line play, as an offensive lineman and offensive line coach," says Yenser. "You just respect it. You have to respect the way they play up front. You love it. That's all you try to teach. It's a mentality and a culture and that's what you hope to be, whether you're a spread football team or whatever – it doesn't matter. We still feel like we've got power principles – running power, running inside zone and pulling and kicking out. We just spread it out and do it. You've got to respect it. You love it. I had a smile on my face the whole time. I wasn't rooting for them, but you get happy when you watch good offensive line play."
With all the improvement that the Cal offensive line has made, they still have yet to truly impose their will on an opponent. 121 of the Bears' rushing yards last week came in the second half, when the game was well in-hand for USC. Can this group be just as physical as the Cardinal?
"I really do think so. It's a mentality of going out and imposing your will on the defense, every single snap, and playing within the rules and literally trying to abuse the person you're playing against," Yenser says. "You're starting to see that a little bit by this group. It's all about playing confident, and not playing scared, not playing timid, not playing scared to mess up and understanding that you are responsible for your actions and what you do on the field, but it's not all about what you do, but how you do it. That's what I try to get into these guys' heads. I don't care what you do. It's how you do it. It has to be, obviously, I want you running the right play, but it's all about how you do things."
On Tuesday, the offensive line fired off the ball, rather than the retreating technique they'd used previously. It could be the first indication that the group – composed of a redshirt sophomore (Rigsbee), two redshirt freshmen (Okafor and Steven Moore), a true freshman (Borrayo) and a redshirt junior (Moore) could finally be mature enough to start running the ball with physicality and regularity.
"These last three weeks, the guys have worked their butts off all year, and they do exactly what we ask them to do, and with young guys, every game's a little bit more experience for them, and it does help," Yenser says. "It helps tremendously, those five guys up front, molding together, and they've been in it three games now, and we want to finish strong."
"It's hard not to think of the future, because we are so young," Moore says. "You'll have three guys on the offensive line that will have three years together, which is pretty rare. I think the thing that I look forward to next year, that gives me hope, is the rushing game. I feel like our running game has gotten so much better the past few games, and it's only going to get better, I feel like, because we're younger guys."
This weekend's tilt against Colorado – another winless Pac-12 team – could be the shot in the arm that the Cal line needs to springboard into the Big Game and next season with some residual confidence.
"I think a win will help for sure," says Moore. "Wins are always good. I mean, a win going into the offseason will definitely just bring morale up, and show us that what these coaches are teaching us and telling us to do are the right things to do. We'll be good."
The Buffaloes are second-to-last in the league in scoring defense and total defense, and are dead last in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing an average of 211.9 yards per game on the ground. Colorado is also 11th in the conference in passing defense (273.4 yards per game) and pass defense efficiency (145.9). The Buffaloes are also 12th in the Pac-12 in sacks by, having only popped opposing quarterbacks 11 times in nine games.
Moore says that the current group of linemen now starting are "just a better group of run blockers," than the previous incarnation, which should play well against Colorado, which has struggled against the run despite having three upperclassmen among the four the defensive line starters.
"We're more about coming off the ball and hitting people in the mouth," Moore says.
"We can say it's the 10th game, the ninth game of the season or whatever," says Yenser, "but I just think that they're being more comfortable with what we're asking them to do. We don't do a lot in the run game, but just talking about running off the ball and getting that second step in the ground, it's just starting to become more. It's coming off and setting an angle. That has a lot to do with me. Don't be scared. Don't be timid. Don't just work for placement. Come off the ball, set your angle and let's go. Let's move people. That's the mentality that we're trying to get up front. We've had a couple good games up front, but the whole thing is being consistent, winning with technique and being consistent with it."
IN-DEPTH: Shuffling the Deck
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