BERKELEY -- After averaging 4.6 yards per carry over the past three games, the California running game took a hit heading into Colorado for this weekend's tilt between the Pac-12 North and Pac-12 South's two cellar dwellers, as redshirt sophomore Daniel Lasco was ruled out with a shoulder injury, which he's been struggling with for the past two weeks.
"I thought he could do it, and had a doctor's appointment and they checked him out and said he wasn't ready to go, so he's not going," said head coach Sonny Dykes.
While Lasco didn't do much last week – rushing just three times for 11 yards – the threat of Lasco's hard-running style did account for one touchdown on a flea-flicker from Lasco to quarterback Jared Goff, who passed to Darius Powe for the Bears' second touchdown of the day against USC.
Without Lasco, Cal will turn to Darren Ervin, Jeffrey Coprich, Jr., Khalfani Muhammad and a familiar face -- Brendan Bigelow.
"What we'll do is we'll use Bigelow some back there a little bit more, which I think will be good," Dykes said. "There will be more opportunities to get his hands on the football and kind of play him at some running back, and also at some inside receiver spots."
Bigelow has struggled with confidence in his thrice-repaired knee and confidence, particularly after being moved to inside receiver. He's run 77 times for 297 net yards, and caught 28 passes for 162 yards this season – all without a touchdown.
His confidence level, though, is rising, particularly after splitting time between running back and inside receiver this week, with more snaps out of the backfield than he's seen in recent weeks, since the switch. Dykes believes that Bigelow can still be the back many thought he could be after scoring two long touchdowns against Ohio State last season.
"We think so. I think not going through spring hurt him, just learning-wise," Dykes said. "I think it took a while for him to get confidence in his knee, and his health, more than anything else. I don't think the position thing's been that big of a deal, in some ways. I think just getting healthy, that's what the spring would have made a big impact on, is, ‘Hey, I realize I can play now, I'm feeling better, and now as I'm moving towards the fall, I feel more comfortable.' I think he spent part of this year getting comfortable."
The move to inside receiver shook Bigelow, but it did take some of the pressure off of his shoulders.
"I think he put a lot of pressure on himself, and he's got a lot of high expectations for himself, and I think, internally and externally, there are high expectations for him, as well, so I think he's starting to get it all figured out and put together, and hopefully, he'll break out on Saturday," Dykes said. "I think he's a guy who hadn't played a lot, so I think when you haven't played a lot and you're dealing with some injuries and trying to get back in the fold, it takes longer sometimes than you want it to and everybody wants it to … I think, as we move forward, finishing up this year and getting into the spring, I think he'll be a different player next fall."
As for the defense, Dykes listed linebacker Khairi Fortt as "probable" headed into Saturday, after he's dealt with a biceps strain for the past week.
"Wait and see how it feels. He was better today. I'm cautiously optimistic," Dykes said. "We're a little thin, even if he does play, but we'll be alright. We'll figure it out."
Inside receiver Richard Rodgers was also listed as "probable" after missing last week thanks to difficulty catching the ball due to a surgically-repaired thumb.
"I thought Richard practiced well. He caught the ball well, practiced well, so I feel good about him," Dykes said. "He caught the ball with his off hand pretty consistently. He didn't do it very good the first part of the week, and the second half of the week, caught the ball well using both hands. He's just got his thumb down on the other hand, and that's really all the cast is, is kind of immobilizing his thumb."
Dykes looks at this weekend's game as one that the Bears "can win," though he followed that up by saying that the Bears "ought to win them all."
"It's two teams that are desperate to win, and I'm sure they feel the same way. I'm sure they're going into this ballgame with a lot of confidence, feeling that they have a good chance to beat us and we need to just go out and play," Dykes said.
In order to down the Buffs, Dykes placed a heavy emphasis on execution, particularly with a team that's lost 59 man-starts to injury, including 10 from defensive end Brennan Scarlett, 10 from safety Avery Sebastian, seven from cornerback Stefan McClure, six from center Chris Adcock and seven from right guard (now back-up right tackle) Matt Cochran.
"I would have thought it was a bit more than that. I would have thought it would have been in the 70s or 80s," Dykes said. "That's why you put the [Colorado] film on, it's the same guys playing the same positions from game one to game 11 as we're going into it. There's been an improvement that's taken place. They're a better team as a result of that, particularly on special teams. It's been the same guys covering kicks, the same guys in punt return, the same guys on kickoff return, and as a result, those units have really improved, and that, to me, is what stands out.
"I think we've just got to execute. That's been our issue. You go back and you look at it, you say, ‘What have we done wrong?' You can go back, game to game to game, and it's come down to just a lack of execution, whether it's getting fooled early on a play-action pass against Northwestern the first series, or it's Washington State, driving down to the five-yard line and fumbling. Whenever that's been the case, it's just been a lack of execution. That's what's hurt us."
Punter Cole Leininger has shown no ill effects from the two punt return touchdowns and one blocked punt touchdown last week against the Trojans, and will retain his starting spot.
"He had a great day today. He's ready to go," Dykes said. "I think we all were [scarred], to an extent, but no, I don't think [he was]. I thought he had a really good week of practice and especially today."
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