One of the themes of Cal’s offensive renaissance this season has been the emergence of a competent rushing game.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes is a protege of none other than Washington State’s Mike Leach, with both coaches implementing offenses that are lightning quick. But unlike Leach, Dykes doesn’t try to throw the football for three-fourths of the game. Throughout his tenure as head coach of the Bears, Dykes has emphasized the importance of a balanced offense that can both pass and run, saying at the beginning of this season that he’d like to be able to run it 55 percent of the time.
Last year, that didn’t happen. The Bears barely managed to rush the ball 40 percent of the time in 2013, and when they did so, they were ineffective. Cal averaged just 3.49 yards per attempt, ranking it 108 out of 125 FBS teams.
Not all of this was the fault of the offense. Cal fell behind so early and so often in games that it couldn’t afford to run the football — it had to throw it in the hopes of completing a swift comeback.
But there is little excuse for the 3.49-yard average. That was mostly the result of a round robin of running backs — including the underwhelming and since-departed Brendan Bigelow — that never really came together to be an effective force.
This year, through five games, running back Daniel Lasco is averaging 6.18 yards per attempt and has more than 80 rushing yards per game. Even with the Sacramento State game removed, Lasco still averages an impressive 5.51 yards per attempt. Lasco’s emergence as a feature back has brought balance to Dykes’ offense, separating the “Bear Raid” from the air-raid offense of Leach and other coaches. The Bears have only passed the ball 10 more times than they’ve run it this season, representing a far more even split and a number closer to the 55 percent Dykes was looking for.
The improvement is not only a testament to Lasco but to an improved offensive line as well. One play against Washington State stands out as an example of how the Bears have improved their rushing attack.
Cal is about to erase a halftime deficit and take its first lead of the game. The Bears are lined up on Washington State’s 15-yard line early in the third quarter and looking to close the 24-20 lead the Cougars currently hold.
Three wide receivers are lined up to the left of the offensive line, with quarterback Jared Goff in shotgun. Lasco is lined up to his left. What’s unique about this formation is that wide receiver Stephen Anderson is lined up on the right side of the offensive line like a tight end. Dykes’ offense, however, doesn’t technically feature tight ends. That’s more than a shift in semantics — it’s a designation that caused former Cal tight end Richard Rodgers, now a Green Bay Packer, to lose 33 pounds before the 2013 Cal season so he could shift to wideout.
Yet there Anderson is, lined up just to the right of Jordan Rigsbee.
The Cougars’ defense, meanwhile, is showing a blitz. Washington State has seven of its 11 defenders bunched up at the line of scrimmage, with a majority of those lined up to the right side of Cal’s offensive line, even though the receivers are on the left. There’s no deep safety, which makes sense with the play so close to the endzone, but Cal will likely get one-on-one coverage on the three receivers on the outside.
As soon as the ball is snapped, Washington State brings all seven of its rushers, including two on the left side of the line who are unblocked. Meanwhile, Alejandro Crosthwaite, Cal’s right guard, pulls from the line and begins to run to seal off a blocking lane for Lasco on the right side. On this play, Crosthwaite is supposed to act as Lasco’s leading blocker.
Anderson seals the edge on the right side much like a tight end would. He keeps the rushers on that side moving toward the center of the line, effectively giving Lasco the room he needs to operate. Goff prepares to hand the ball off to Lasco, who is moving from the left side toward the right.
Most runs from the shotgun formation limit the running back’s momentum before he crashes between the tackle. But because Lasco is sweeping from left to right on this play, he’s able to gain some steam before he gets near the line of scrimmage.
The wide receivers, meanwhile, are still at work. Bryce Treggs comes back behind the line of scrimmage as Goff fakes a quick screen pass to him. A few of the defenders in the secondary who don’t already realize that the ball is in Lasco’s hands hesitate at the fake, but they’re already so far toward the left side of the field that even if they hadn’t bitten on the deception, they wouldn’t have made much of an impact on this play.
The two rushers who came unblocked on the left side are useless. They’re also too far from the action to make a difference, as Lasco is running in the opposite direction.
Lasco has just one man to beat — defensive back Charleston White. With Crosthwaite out in front blocking, this is a beautifully designed run. All Lasco has to do is follow his block, and he has a clear path to the endzone.
But Lasco doesn’t even do that. Once he puts his foot in the ground to make his way up field, he hits a second gear, breezing past Crosthwaite and White. Lasco walks into the endzone without being touched.
The improvement of Goff and Cal’s passing game has been well documented. The running game has gotten some attention too, but the improvement is more vast than most realize. Cal’s increased competence has brought balance to an offense.
It’s worth noting that despite the improvement, Cal ranks just 67th in rushing S&P+ — an advanced statistic that measures efficiency on a play-by-play basis — this season, a relatively middle-of-the-pack number. But that represents a significant jump from the 107th-ranked rushing offense Cal ran with last year.
Cal’s offensive line has improved, and Lasco, who battled some injuries last season, has transformed into the kind of workhorse back Cal has needed him to be. He’s known more as a kind of bruising back who can break tackles, but against Washington State — and on that play in the third quarter in particular — he showed off his speed.
Whether he’s running past or over people, Lasco and Cal’s rushing attack is giving the Bears just enough to feature a balanced, complete offense this season.