Shrouded in all the questions about Zach Maynard and his struggles is a diminutive running back and a bullish offensive line. A Lilliputian surrounded by Gullivers.
In a year wrought with inconsistency, Isi Sofele and the offensive line have silently and steadily continued to improve while the media, myself included, has focused on the struggles of an admirably confident but raw signal caller.
And after racking up a career-high 138 yards on 23 carries, Sofele once again proved that he is the right player for the starting running back job despite his lack of physical gifts. Through strength training and clear attentiveness to vaunted running backs coach Ron Gould’s advice, Sofele showed off speed, power and elusiveness in Saturday’s 30-7 romp over Washington State.
And if Cal wants any hope of knocking off Stanford in two weeks, it will need to be the running game that sets the tone.
See, Cal has serious weapons in Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. Coach Jeff Tedford wants these guys to have the ball, but Maynard has struggled to meaningfully and consistently find them. Defenses have started to bring safeties in over the top to cover Allen, and Jones has caught only three balls in the last two games.
So it may be time that Tedford uses the strongest parts of his offense — a rapidly improving offensive line and running back — to anchor the offense until Zach Maynard can prove that he can play more consistently.
Tedford has it within his bag of tricks to create some lateral motion within the offense. He has tried some reverses and misdirection plays at points this season, and those plays will only become more effective if he continues to pound the football with the formidable running back tandem of Sofele and C.J. Anderson.
By establishing the run early in football games, Allen and Jones will be freed up for more single coverage in passing situations and more lateral room to roam on stretch plays like reverses and fly sweeps.
It may be a bit late to have figured this out, but Sofele provides the stability that this offense needs to be successful. The losses that Cal has endured this season have been hurt by offensive imbalance. Against Oregon, it felt like Cal abandoned the successful running game a bit too early to rely on a visibly uncomfortable Maynard to try to keep up with Oregon’s score-a-minute offense.
The only game where Sofele looked legitimately ineffective was against USC, which is arguably the most athletic team in the conference.
Cal turned in one of its most watchable performances on offense against the Cougars predominantly because it trusted the run. The offensive line looked worn, tired and beat up after the game.
That is the way that it wants to look. Running the ball keeps the line happy and frequently results in better protection for everybody.
Maynard has shown that he probably lacks the natural skills to take over a game against a big-time defense, but he certainly possesses the skills to manage a game. That’s what he did against Washington State: He managed.
Maynard threw the ball only 17 times, and the strong majority of those were safe tosses. He will almost inevitably have more attempts in each of the last three games of the season, but it was a good number of throws and, more importantly, the right types of throws.
Maynard himself admitted that his job becomes significantly easier when Sofele runs the ball the way that he did. Sofele admitted that he feels like he’s getting better every game.
If Cal wants that Big Game win that as of now looks impossible, it will have to manage to do so.