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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 05: Isi Sofele #20 of the California Golden Bears runs with the ball against the Washington State Cougars at AT&T Park on November 5, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Much of the talk about Cal's Isi Sofele centers on his diminutive 5-foot-8 frame.

But the pint-size tailback offers some other numbers to consider. Sofele needs just 161 yards over the final three games to become Cal's latest 1,000-yard rusher, joining such stars as Marshawn Lynch, Jahvid Best and J.J. Arrington to reach that milestone in recent seasons.

All three of those players became first- or second-round draft picks. And though Sofele isn't viewed in nearly the same light as an NFL prospect, he has quieted concerns over whether he could shoulder the load as Cal's featured back.

The junior darted through Washington State's defense for a career-high 138 yards on 23 carries in last weekend's 30-7 victory.

"I thought Isi showed a side that we haven't really seen, making people miss and keeping his feet under him," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said after the game. "With experience, he's hitting the holes harder and making more people miss."

Cal leaned heavily on the pass early in the season, but as quarterback Zach Maynard has struggled mightily at times, a strong running game is needed to take pressure off him.

Sofele figures to have another busy day Saturday against Oregon State, which ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in run defense (171.2 yards per game).

Tedford calls Sofele, who's 190 pounds, the toughest pound-for-pound player on the team, but he's won over his teammates with a surprisingly physical running style.


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"He's a little guy, but his heart is tremendous," Cal right guard Justin Cheadle said. "He fires me up just watching him run, because he runs so hard and he's not afraid of anything. He likes to hit."

But Tedford noted the need to keep Sofele fresh.

The Bears have employed an effective two-tailback system through most of Tedford's 10 seasons as coach. While an experienced runner has handled the heavy workload, a younger tailback has gotten significant carries while being groomed as the future starter.

A player to complement Sofele has yet to emerge this season, although juniors C.J. Anderson and Mike Manuel combined for 79 yards against Washington State in relief duty.

"We're starting to see some other guys step up and contribute in that fashion," running backs coach Ron Gould said.

A player who could hold a key to Cal's future is Brendan Bigelow, one of the jewels of the Bears' 2011 recruiting class despite missing his entire senior season (and part of his junior season) after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee twice at Central East High-Fresno.

Bigelow was slow to snap back into playing mode during camp, but Cal chose not to redshirt him. Bigelow has just five carries this season, but he's been the Bears' leading kickoff returner and had an 88-yard return for a touchdown against Presbyterian College.

"Next year will be more of his big year," Tedford said. "Coming off two years of not playing football, he's getting back in it."

Bigelow figures next season to be the tailback groomed for future duty. Sofele and backups Anderson, Manuel and Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson will be seniors, so there will be a hole to fill in 2013.

But the present belongs to Sofele, who says he's trying not to focus on the 1,000-yard barrier.

Easier said than done.

"I can't be letting that take away my focus," he said. "It's important to me to get that 1,000 yards, and eventually I'll get there."

Saturday's game

Oregon State (2-7, 2-4 Pac-12) at Cal (5-4, 2-4) at AT&T Park, 3:30 p.m. CSNCA