Game on the line against Ohio State

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If Cal somehow bucks No. 4 Ohio State in front of a national audience Saturday and avenges last season’s 35-28 loss, chances are it’ll be the product of a steady dose of running back Brendan Bigelow and a stout defensive performance that forces the Buckeyes into committing a multitude of errors.

Winning the overlooked and often unseen war in the trenches gives Cal a shot at knocking off a team that is unbeaten in its last 14 games. Make no mistake about it: The only way Cal wins this football game is by opening up running lanes for Bigelow, containing the potent Ohio State rushing attack and terrorizing the Buckeyes’ signal-caller.

For Cal, an effective running game has been elusive, like a tube of chapstick lost in the couch cushions. Despite Dykes’ balanced offensive system at Louisiana Tech, quarterback Jared Goff has attempted 115 passes while the Bears have run the ball only 79 times.

Through the first two games, Goff has been consistent and even spectacular at times. Receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have caught nearly every ball thrown in their vicinity. But as Dykes highlighted in his press conference Tuesday, Cal can’t expect to throw the ball 70 times against an experienced Ohio State secondary that features corners such as Bradley Roby, who led the nation in passes defended per game last season.

In order for Bigelow to exploit the Buckeyes, Cal’s offensive line must win the battle up front. Whether it was last year’s contest against Ohio State or the opening drive against Northwestern two weeks ago, when Bigelow hits open field, he’s nearly impossible to bring down.

After Bigelow’s breakout performance at the Horseshoe last season, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State tacklers are aware how important it is to win the battle up front and contain Bigelow.

The same can be said for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. Cal defensive coordinator Andy Buh, the former linebackers coach for Wisconsin, helped hold Miller to a mere 145 total yards when the Badgers faced off against the Buckeyes last season. Still, Miller came through when it mattered, leading his unit to a 21-14 OT win.

And against Cal last year, Miller picked apart the secondary to the tune of 249 passing yards and four touchdowns.

But in last Saturday’s win over San Diego State, Miller sprained a ligament in his left knee, creating an unknown variable come Saturday. Regardless of who is under center, Buh’s task won’t be easy: Miller’s backup, Kenny Guiton, threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third against the Aztecs.

Both quarterbacks feature the ability to run the ball themselves, which should make it difficult for the Bears to generate an effective pass rush. When a quarterback possesses wheels to go along with an arm, defensive ends have to make sure the quarterback does not take off running. This creates time for the quarterback in the pocket on plays that he stays in to pass.

So far this season, the Bears have totaled only three sacks in their first two games against Northwestern and Portland State — two teams that also featured run-first quarterbacks.

Ohio State averages exactly 150 more rushing yards per game than Cal. It’s just one reason the Buckeyes are favored 2,000 miles away from the friendly confines of Columbus.

By controlling the line of scrimmage — a task easier said than done for two underperforming position groups — the Bears can give themselves a shot in the dark Saturday. It might not be the shot they wanted, but it’s pretty much the only one they’ve got.

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.