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November 14, 2011
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BERKELEY -- Before the advent of the forward pass, football -- like rugby and its predecessors -- was built on one thing: running the ball.
It's why 7-on-7 teams and tournaments are not as big as, say, AAU basketball. Football is not Home Run Derby. It's not just quarterbacks and wide receivers. Football is built on the blood and broken bodies and bruises and welts and paint chips flying off helmets. It's built on the backs of big uglies, snarling in the trenches. It's built on bangers and smashers and thunder and lightning. It's built upon the backs of those most willing to drive their noses into the stoutest of walls and, in the face of psychotic linebackers and out-for-blood defensive linemen, get those three yards in a cloud of dust.
In the final tally, football is built on underdogs. Underdogs like 5-foot-7 (5-foot-8 on a good day, in cleats, on concrete, if you like him) California tailback Isi Sofele.
On Saturday, Sofele and the Bears will face a No. 9 Stanford team which owns a 20-point advantage in the eyes of the betting public -- the largest underdog they've been heading into the Big Game in recent memory.
"I love it," says Sofele. "I always love being the underdog, going into big fights like this. No doubt, this is going to be a battle out there, so it's going to be fun to go out there and be the underdogs and show them what we've got."
Over the past two games -- and, granted, those two games have been against Washington State and Oregon State teams with a combined 6-14 record -- Cal has rushed for a total of 588 yards. The Cougars came in with the seventh rushing defense in the Pac-12, allowing 150.8 yards per game. The Beavers came into AT&T Park allowing an average of 171.2 yards per game on the ground.
Against those two defenses, the Bears rushed 95 times, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
OK, sure, against two bad rushing defenses, the two game plans were nearly identical: run the ball and don't make mistakes through the air. In those two games, Cal threw the ball just 39 times.
Two games, two sensible game plans. But, taking the longer view, when Sofele tallies at least 18 carries, the Bears are 6-0.
"Man. Give me the rock," Sofele chuckles when he hears that statistic. "Naw, I'm not going to say that. All the passing and everything, we've got Zach [Maynard] back there making great reads and everything, it opens up the run game when we're able to get down and break them out."
Going back even further, to the heyday of Jeff Tedford's pro-style offense -- before the elements of the spread, before the increased use of the shotgun, before the pistol formations -- running the ball was what Tedford's best teams were built on.
From 2002 to 2006, Tedford's teams boasted a 43-20 record, rushing the ball an average of 37.3 times per game. In those years, Cal gained 5.07 yards per carry, and 189.2 yards per game on the ground.
From 2007 to 2010, the Bears ran the ball 35.5 times per game, gaining 4.89 yards per attempt and 173.68 yards per game on the ground. Over that period of time, Cal has gone 28-22.
Over nine years of statistics, those are hardly numerical aberrations. They're trends. When the Bears dominate the line of scrimmage, control the time of possession and hammer away the hard way, they win.
"That is awesome," says senior linebacker D.J. Holt. "We love that. I come to the sideline, I get my corrections in, and I'm standing right up, cheering the offense on. I just love seeing our offense run it down their throat. I love seeing that. One thing I do not like is our offense, we might mess up, then our guys get down, but lately, the guys have been playing well. I like seeing our guys coming off with smiles on their faces, so we've done a good job of fixing that morale and that attitude."
There is no better morale booster than Sofele. Always smiling, even when he's in pain, Sofele has matured as a tailback over the course of this season. He was a stop-gap, a place-holder, when the season began. He was a guy, not the guy. He didn't have the speed of Jahvid Best or the power of Marshawn Lynch. What he does have, though, is the will to work -- a hallmark of Tedford's early -- and arguably less-talented -- teams.
"I'm just sick of everybody telling me, 'You've got to just go get it,' so I've been listening to coach [Ron] G[ould] all week -- all year, actually -- just telling me to go attack the guy, be physical," says Sofele. "As we are starting to be more physical with the defenses, they're starting to lighten up, so it's better to attack them than being light in the third or fourth quarter."
Last week, Sofele became the ninth Cal tailback in 10 years to break the 1,000-yard mark. He is now the fourth-most prolific back in the Pac-12 with a 5.4 yards-per-carry average, 102.9 yards per game and 1,029 total rushing yards.
Along with C.J. Anderson -- who had 96 rushing yards last week -- Sofele and the Bears are the fourth-best rushing attack in the conference, averaging 167.4 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.
"Isi has gotten continually better throughout the season, and obviously, that's a big part of making us successful," says Tedford. "It really always has been. When running backs are running for over 100 yards, you have a 1,000-yard rusher, is typically when we've had the most success, when we can do both, but he's playing well. He's going to have to play well this week. But, he's not a one-man show. Everyone else has to do their job, as well."
No, Sofele is not Best or Lynch, or Shane Vereen or Justin Forsett, for that matter. But both he -- and the offensive line in front of him -- may be Cal's best bet against the Cardinal.
"The things that win football games are typically at the line of scrimmage," says Tedford. "Being able to be physical at the line of scrimmage is going to be critical."
Of course, Stanford will have something to say about that. Even without highly-touted linebacker Shayne Skov, the Cardinal still have the second-best overall defense in the Pac-12, allowing 20.2 points per game and 330.3 yards of total offense per contest.
In contrast to the Bears' last two opponents, Stanford has the top rushing defense in the league, holding opponents to just 94.2 yards per game and a 3.3 yards-per-carry average.
The Cardinal is second in the conference in sacks with 30, second in fewest opponent first downs allowed (17.0 per game), first in holding opponents on third down (28.6 percent conversion rate) and first in red zone defense. When backed down deep, Stanford holds opponents scoreless 29.6 percent of the time. Of the 19 scores the Cardinal have allowed, 16 have been touchdowns, with seven coming on the ground and nine through the air. They've done all of that with their leading tackler -- sophomore Jarek Lancaster -- ranking 33rd in the conference in tackles per game.
Junior Chase Thomas, though, is tops in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss with 14.5 and second in sacks with 6.5.
"They come downhill," says Sofele. "They're downhill runners, so I feel like they're pretty good. It's a good group of guys."
They're going to come hard after Sofele and the offensive line. They're going to force Zach Maynard to be a passer and to make mistakes. It's the Big Game, and the Bears should not expect anything less.
"This group that we're getting ready to play is a very physical group," Tedford says. "They're a great defense. I think their offense gets a lot of notoriety, obviously, because of Andrew Luck, but their defense is as good as you're going to find anywhere. They're very multiple, they do a great job. They're physical. They have good cover guys in the secondary. They're very well-coached. You look at the stats and look at those things, and they're at the top or near the top of every defensive category."
If Cal is to return to the heights it reached five years ago, though, it will all start by doing one thing: showing no fear against a big-time team, in a big-time game on the road. It will take attitude. It will take guts. It will take spite. It will take everything that goes with being the underdog.
"I dislike this team," says Sofele. "I dislike this team. We've got to come out and execute and just take their will."