Muhammad predicted to headline at running back for Cal football

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Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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Midway through the second quarter in Cal football’s battle with Stanford, Jared Goff set a new season record in pass attempts. Hurling his 531st attempt of the season, Goff’s passing was reflective of a similar theme in all of the Bears’ games, neglecting the run.

At the Big Game’s conclusion, the Bears collectively finished with a whopping total of 73 rushing yards — 22 yards fewer than Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney.

When looking at the Bears’ inability to produce on the ground in last season’s anti-climactic season-finale, it’s evident that running the ball is not an aspect of the game that Cal thrives in.

With 1,485 total rushing yards last season, the Bears ranked 108th in a pool of 125 FBS schools. Their 10 rushing touchdowns tied for 114th, while their 3.49 yards per carry ranked  108th.

The list goes on.

When looking for an explanation to Cal’s miserable 1-11 season, the lack of a run game can’t go unnoticed. Ranked in the bottom 20 in nearly every possible rushing statistical category, the running game is the offense’s biggest weakness. For the Bears to turn the program around and start putting themselves in a more suitable position to win games, they must improve on the ground.

So why was 2013 so unkind to Cal’s running game? In their 11 losses this season, the Bears have trailed by an average of 17.5 points come halftime.

Sometimes, it’s Goff throwing a pick or coughing the ball up after a sack. Other times, the defense gave up a highlight play for a quick score.

Because the team faced an uphill battle and trailed by a large sum of points to start the second half, Cal was forced to play a quicker pace. Run plays do not stop the clock and would take up too much time to move the chains as evidenced by the team’s 3.5 yards per carry. The emphasis on passing in the Bear Raid offense escalated, and as the game rolled on, the team strayed away from running.

It’s important to note the uneven distribution of passing to running plays is not a product of Sonny Dykes’ spread offense. At Louisiana Tech, Dykes’ offense was much closer to an even split of plays on the ground and the air. In 2012, the Bulldogs called 533 passing attempts to 521 carries. Dykes even called more running than passing plays in 2011 with 510 carries to 477 passing attempts.

The Bears, meanwhile, ranked fourth in the country with a robust total of 658 dropbacks indicating that their emphasis on launching the ball has accounted for roughly 61 percent of all the team’s offensive plays.

As a result of the pass-heavy offense, the Cal running backs had just 426 carries — 104th in the country. Instead of running the ball and doing what they do best, the running backs had no choice but to fulfill their assignment on passing plays by running routes. Because of the running back’s involvement in the short passing game by serving as an extra target, the running backs can still get themselves involved making plays off catches. But nonetheless, throughout the majority of Cal’s matches, running backs could not consistently obtain carries.

One running back who made the most out of his limited carries was Brendan Bigelow, who rushed for 421 yards on 105 attempts. With Bigelow going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sophomore Khalfani Muhammad will likely have an increased role. As a freshman, Muhammad was second on the team in attempts and yards behind Bigelow with 74 carries and 467 yards, which gave him a team-leading six yards a carry.

Next year, Muhammad will have the most potential to be the Bears’ next big play threat on the ground. In his 2013 season, the college track sprinter demonstrated flashy speed to explode out of the backfield as well as surprising strength to break tackles and get past the second and third levels of opposing defenses.

Behind Muhammad in the depth chart is junior Daniel Lasco. At 6 feet and 210 pounds, Lasco is easily Cal’s largest running back and could work with Muhammad in forming Cal’s own version of speed and bleed.

Backing up Lasco and Muhammad will be sophomore Jeffrey Coprich, who ran for 163 yards and a touchdown last season. Also on the depth chart are redshirt freshmen Austin Harper and Kenny Portera. Also on the depth chart is true freshman Tre Watson, who has demonstrated shiftiness, vision and above-average speed in high school. Neither, however, has played an official snap, and it remains to be seen whether or not they will receive significant playing time in 2014.

It’s no secret that the Bears prefer to pass the ball. But last season proved that passing as often as Cal does can have consequences. For the Bear Raid to be truly efficient, Cal needs to balance out the play-calling and make the running game a more relevant feature of the offense.

Contact Richard Lee at [email protected].