CAL vs. NORTHWESTERN PREVIEW: The Run Game
BERKELEY -- It’s not often that California offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is afraid, but last year, he was petrified of what would happen if he called a run.
“I was afraid to call them, which is no fun as a play-caller,” he said this week. “In my belief, you can’t win a championship if you can’t run the ball.
“I’ve never been a part of winning a championship where we couldn’t run the football. We know that we have to run the ball, if we’re going to be successful.”
Last season, the Bears ranked 107th in the nation in rushing offense, punching in just 10 touchdowns on the ground, and averaging 122.2 yards per game. Cal had just one 100-yard rushing performance from a single running back.
“Part of it, last year, was we just got down so fast in games, so we’ve got to do a better job, starting Saturday, of giving ourselves a chance. Last year, we didn’t really do that,” said head coach Sonny Dykes.
Brendan Bigelow ripped of 55 yards on his first three carries last year against Saturday’s opponent – Northwestern – but the Bears gained just 34 yards on the ground the rest of the game. Once the Wildcats saw that the run – and the Bigelow that tore apart Ohio State – was missing in action, they were able to take more risks on the back end, and essentially ignore the run. Opponents did that for the rest of the season, and quarterback Jared Goff suffered, taking 29 sacks.
“That’s definitely been something that helped me through the year, gaining experience, is how many times we threw the ball,” said Goff, who threw the ball 531 times in 2013, while Cal tallied just 424 rushing attempts. “With that, though, I’d love to run the ball for a million yards this year and win every game. If the running game is what we need to do to win, that’s what I’m all for.”
With Bigelow gone, Cal returns two experienced backs in Khalfani Muhammad and Doak Walker Award Watch List member Daniel Lasco, who was rarely healthy last season, and rushed for 317 yards and two touchdowns on 67 attempts.
“He’s a great player, a phenomenal player,” running backs coach Pierre Ingram said of Lasco. “He loves the game of football, and it’s fun watching him run the ball. I’m looking forward to having him as part of this offense, and as a small piece of what we do.”
As for Lasco’s health?
“I’m very healthy. Right now, I’m very blessed to say that everything is 100 percent, and I feel good, tip-top shape. I just keep grinding and enjoy how it is right now, and put it all on the line, come Saturday,” Lasco said. “Mentally is probably the biggest aspect of it, just because going out there, before the game, I don’t have to really worry about warming up different muscles and things like that. I can kind of just go out there and play my own game, and not harp on an injury or focus on little things like a nagging shoulder or a hamstring or whatever the case may be. It’s nice being comfortable going out there and just worrying about the opponent and my assignments.”
Last season’s Pac-12 champion – Stanford – was 22nd in the nation in rushing. Of the six power conference champions – the Cardinal, national champ Florida State (ACC), Big 12 champ Baylor, Big Ten champion Michigan State, American Athletic Conference (formerly the Big East) champion UCF and SEC champion Auburn – four were among the top 30 in rushing offense.
Franklin has challenged Lasco and the rest of the running backs every day during spring, summer and fall camp to be better, and they’ve listened.
“I tell them, you don’t win championships if you don’t run the ball,” Franklin said. “I don’t know of anybody in football that’s done it. You can win games, but the goal is to win a championship, every year.”
A powerful rushing attack means a powerful – and consistent -- offensive line. Cal had neither last season, cycling 12 players through the offensive front. This year, center Chris Adcock is back and healthy, while the two most experienced linemen from last season -- Jordan Rigsbee and Steven Moore -- are bookending the line at right and left tackle, respectively. Sophomore Chris Borrayo and redshirt senior Alex Crosthwaite are back at left and right guard. After Borrayo was inserted as a starter against Washington, and in the Bears’ final five games in which he played, Goff took nine sacks, after going down an average of 2.9 times per game in the previous seven games.
Before Borrayo was inserted, Cal averaged 106.4 yards per game on the ground, and 2.9 yards per carry. Afterward? 144.2 and 4.4.
“Those guys (the running backs) are an extension of us,” said offensive line coach Zach Yenser. “We make them look good, and they make us look good. We compliment each other.”
Northwestern returns four players who started in the front seven last year at Memorial Stadium, and on the Wildcats’ two-deep in that front seven, there are four players who started at least nine games last season. That veteran group, Dykes said, is the strength of the Northwestern defense.
“They’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of guys that have played a lot of football and been good players,” said Dykes. “We’re going to need to be able to run the ball. That’s going to be important for us.”
Though last season, the Wildcats were 68th in the nation in rushing defense, they return eight players that played in every single game out of the 14 players on the two-deep, meaning that the Bears will be trying to do the thing they were worst at last year against a very veteran unit.
“They’re extremely well-coached, so we have to do a good job of being well-coached. We’ve got to take care of the ball. We’ve got to match them. What they’re good at, we have to do,” said Franklin. “The thing when you watch them play, is you watch every single game from last year, and you never see a bad game. You don’t see it where somebody just gets their number and lights them up. They’re very sound, they’re very well coached, they’re very disciplined. Their kids are physically tough. I tell our guys, ‘If you want to win this football game, you’ve got to be physically tougher than them, and they’re tough. It’s going to be a tough-man ball game.”
That starts with Muhammad and Lasco, listed first and second on the depth chart, respectively.
“Khalfani, at the end of the year, was a six-yard-per guy. He deserved to start the season off as the No. 1 guy, and that’s how he started it off, and he hasn’t done anything to lose it,” Franklin said. “With that being said, Lasco is so much better than he was that it’s not even close. Right now, I’ve never been, as a football coach, where, if you don’t have two good backs, you have no chance. We’re fortunate that we have those two kids that are really good football players, and I just hope they both can stay healthy throughout the season, and we can see them both shine. If not, then we’ve got two other young kids that can play, too.”
Those two “young kids” are freshmen Tre Watson and Vic Enwere -- who are as different as two tailbacks can be. Watson was a stat machine at Corona (Calif.) Centennial, rushing for 5,244 yards and 72 touchdowns in his career on 591 carries. Enwere is a sledge hammer at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, who has been more than adept at getting the tough yards in fall camp, particularly on third down, and especially after taking contact.
“It’s always nice to have a 225-pound back that’s running full-speed through a hole, and that confidence that an arm tackle is not going to take Vic down,” said Yenser. “We want to finish blocks and keep guys off the running backs, but it’s obviously nice that, hey, if we miss a block or a guy slips off a block or whatever, that we’ve still got a chance to make three, four, five yards a pop, just because of how those guys are running the football.”
Enwere is the kind of back that Cal has not had in quite some time, and adds a different dimension to a running back corps that didn’t have a healthy battering ram like him last season, and, as a result, was dead last in the Pac-12 in third-down conversion percentage.
“Everybody talks about big plays and Bear Raid and everything like that, but it all counts on first downs and picking up and converting on those third downs,” Lasco said.
“It always adds, when you’ve got a physical back that’s a good-sized back,” said Ingram. “That’s the thing: Those guys counter each other well, just because you’ve got speed, you’ve got elusiveness and you have a downhill runner, and that’s what every running back coach wants.”
Both Franklin and Dykes have said that all four running backs will share the load on Saturday, each providing something very different.
“I’m excited,” Ingram said. “I’m definitely excited. I think the O-line and the running backs are one, complete unit. I think they understand exactly what each position’s doing right now. Me and coach Yenser spent a lot of time together this summer, going into spring, and the guys get it. It’s a year under their belt. They understand the offense now. It should be a stable of guys that can carry the load for us, now, with the running backs that we have.”
Muhammad, who only had three carries for eight yards last year against the Wildcats, flashed a mischievous smile when asked what Cal fans can expect out of the running backs in the rematch.
“I think if we can open up with the run game, it’s going to open up the passing game even more. If we can just compliment each other and execute the game plan, it’s going to be a beautiful day,” he grinned. “I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been putting in a lot of work, working hard every day, so I can’t wait to get out there and show it off.”
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