Digging deep for daylight down in the trenches

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Lost somewhere between the praise of the record-setting performance by true freshman quarterback Jared Goff and the excitement of the Sonny Dykes era beginning was the disappearance of running back Brendan Bigelow and the rest of Cal’s running game against Northwestern on Saturday night.

After an opening drive that saw Bigelow rush for 55 yards on just three carries, Bigelow ran for only 10 yards on his last 13 carries. Meanwhile, his backups — Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad — combined for 12 carries and turned them into 46 yards. Combining Bigelow’s, Lasco’s and Muhammad’s numbers, what you get is an average yards per carry of just around four.

When you have a team that features three runners as explosive as Cal’s three backs, an average YPC of four shouldn’t be acceptable to Dykes and the rest of his offensive coaching staff. And considering the disparity between the number of carries and the number of times Goff threw the ball — 28 and 63, respectively — it appears as if Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin abandoned the running game and opted to try and ride their freshman quarterback’s arm.

But the blame shouldn’t completely lie with the three running backs, nor with the play-calling — instead, it should be centered around Cal’s offensive line.

In his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Dykes spoke about the struggles of his offensive line on Saturday, including a tendency to stop short of finishing blocks. He also attributed the offensive line’s struggles to the adjustments Northwestern made, such as the shifting around of defensive linemen in order to cause confusion. Still, Dykes acknowledged that the changes Northwestern made were pretty standard and shouldn’t have bothered Cal the way that it did on Saturday night.

For Dykes, the key is to get his explosive runners into the second level and past the line of scrimmage. Once those guys get past the initial wave, they’re able to hit their second gear and make defenders miss in the open field.

Bigelow’s early-game success against Northwestern came as a result of reaching that elusive second level. On his third carry of the game, the junior took a delayed handoff from Goff going to his left. With the offensive line successfully pushing Northwestern’s line to the left, Bigelow was able to quickly cut back to the middle of the field and dart through a hole created by right tackle Steven Moore and right guard Alejandro Crosthwaite. From there, Bigelow’s speed and instincts as a natural open-field runner kicked in, outracing three closing defenders for a gain of 32.

But those running lanes disappeared for Bigelow and company after that first drive.

Whether it be Bigelow, Lasco or Muhammad who receives most of the carries against Portland State on Saturday, I expect those running lanes to be there against an FCS opponent. Whether those lanes are open against the likes of No. 3 Ohio State and No. 2 Oregon remains to be seen.

If Cal expects to walk away with a win against either of those powerhouses, it can’t rely on the arm of Goff, no matter how promising it seems. Running the ball typically leads to fewer turnovers, and considering three interceptions ended up costing the Bears a win against Northwestern, I think Dykes will make it a focal point heading forward.

But if the offensive line fails to create any holes, calling more running plays will prove to be pointless. Despite all the talk about Goff’s golden arm and Bigelow’s eye-popping speed, the success of the Bear Raid offense starts up front and in the trenches.

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