Things getting better all the time

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PULLMAN, WASH — That much maligned Cal offensive line is starting to grow up a little bit.

For the majority of the season thus far, Cal’s front five have been by far the weakest portion of the team and shouldered much of the blame for the team’s 1-4 start. Over the course of the first five games, they were straight up awful.

Whether it was giving up six sacks to Ohio State and seven the week after to USC, the unit did everything it could to prevent Cal from winning. Every time a flag was thrown, it was safe to assume that the Bears were getting called for holding.

Then the UCLA game happened, and the offensive line started to come together and play some decent football. For once, the Bears were the ones winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, which manifested itself in 185 rushing yards.

But the Bears weren’t done there. On Saturday against the Cougars, the young offensive line that had cost its team a handful of wins finally decided to flip the script. The Rigsbee brothers, Brian Schwenke, Chris Adcock and Matt Summers-Gavin absolutely dominated the Cougars and turned what might have been a close game into one that felt over with more than 11 minutes to play.

On every play, there were gaping holes opened up in Washington State’s front seven. Whichever cut they made, the Bears backs had plenty of room to run. Against the Cougars, five different backs carried the ball, collectively piling up 319 yards and three scores.

At one point, Cal ran five straight running plays. Everybody in Martin Stadium — including the Washington State defense — seemed to know that the ball was staying on the ground.

Yet everybody also seemed  to know that the result was going to be more positive yardage, as the Cal offensive line had its way with the Cougars.

But what was most impressive about the line’s play on Saturday was what they didn’t do: give up sacks. Quarterback Zach Maynard rarely ever saw any sort of pressure. Coming in to the game, Washington state linebacker Travis Long led the conference with 7.5 sacks on the year and came away empty on Saturday. He hardly ever came within five yards of the quarterback.

Granted that Washington State doesn’t have the same caliber athletes that the Trojans or Buckeyes boast, Cal’s effort upfront can’t just be chalked up to playing a weak opponent. The line played with a different level of discipline and technique that was missing earlier in the year, which manifested a dominant performance.

But while Saturday’s game was encouraging, the rest of the Bears’ season won’t be as easy. Stanford boasts what are probably the toughest front seven in the Pac-12, with a group of linebackers that could all end up in the NFL. The players are big, fast and physical up front. The team depends on its defensive front to get pressure on every single play.

As well as the Bears’ offensive line played on Saturday, they’re going to need to play even better if Cal is to have a chance at bringing back the Axe.

The offensive line is by far the most crucial aspect of any football team, and the way that the Bears were playing up front to open the season had them poised for a nine or 10-loss season. Now Cal has shown that, as long as the offensive line is playing up to its potential, the team can contend with almost anyone in the Pac-12.

There’s obviously still room for improvement, and the squad will likely face tougher and bigger front lines than Washington State’s in the coming weeks.

But the line has shown that it can improve. And that improvement might be the only thing that saves this season from the train wreck that it initially seemed like.

Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]