The Cal football team totaled 588 rushing yards in victories over Washington State and Oregon State in its past two games, and to pull off a Big Game upset on Saturday the Bears must run the ball with the same degree of success.
An exciting brand of football? Hardly.
But running the ball 95 times while attempting just 39 passes in the wins over the Cougars and Beavers eased the pressure on quarterback Zach Maynard. It also restored some swagger to a team that appeared headed for a nose dive after a 31-14 loss at UCLA on Oct. 29, which left the Bears 4-4.
"It's cool to be able to run the ball," left tackle Mitchell Schwartz said. "It's going to take pressure off everyone else. It kind of opens everything up for us."
Cal is unlikely to buzz through Stanford's defense as it did Washington State and Oregon State -- the Cardinal leads the Pac-12 in rush defense at 94.2 yards allowed per game. But Stanford has shown cracks.
Oregon rolled up 232 yards in handing the Cardinal its only loss last week. Washington's Chris Polk broke off touchdown runs of 46 and 61 yards against Stanford on Oct. 22, and USC's Curtis McNeal scored from 61 and 25 yards the following week.
Cal could look back to its 2009 Big Game upset for a successful template. Shane Vereen rushed for 193 yards and the Bears won 34-28.
Establishing the run and controlling the ball also would keep Stanford's multidimensional offense and quarterback Andrew Luck
"When you're having success running the ball, you stay in manageable situations -- third-and-4, third-and-2," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "You can run the ball to get the first down. If we get third-and-10, we have to throw it. I think being successful in the run game in early downs is important."
Maynard, a junior in his first year as Cal's starting quarterback, threw 10 interceptions through his first eight games. He ranks 10th in the Pac-12 with a passing efficiency rating of 122.8.
Simply put, the Bears do not want this game resting on Maynard's left arm. But it's worth noting that as Cal ran the ball so well in beating Washington State and Oregon State, Maynard appeared more poised, finding open receivers off play-action passes.
"To get momentum with the running game takes a lot of pressure off me," Maynard said.
An encouraging sign for Cal in last week's victory over Oregon State was the 1-2 punch at tailback of Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson. Sofele, with 1,029 rushing yards, is the shifty, quicker option who gets the bulk of carries. But Anderson, a more physical runner at 215 pounds, chipped in a season-high 96 yards against OSU.
With Cal leaning heavily on the run, wideouts Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones -- considered one of the best receiver duos in the country -- haven't seen many passes coming their way. But Eric Kiesau, Cal's receivers coach and passing game coordinator, says their presence has benefits.
"I have to say, when you have receivers like we've got on the outside and (opponents) have to concentrate on those guys, it helps the running game as well," Kiesau said.