SAN DIEGO -- Once more this season, as Cal takes on Texas in the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday night, running back Isi Sofele feels a responsibility to put the team on his back.
He is just 5-foot-7, 190 pounds, but Sofele understands what his performance can mean for the Golden Bears.
"I always feel the team is looking to me to come out and deliver a blow," Sofele said.
A more potent running game made all the difference for the Bears (7-5) during the final four games of the regular season. And against the Longhorns (7-5), whose defense ranked among the best in the Big 12 Conference, everything from field position to passing efficiency will be impacted by the Bears' ability to run the ball.
Texas coach Mack Brown said he saw even more than that while watching tapes of the Bears' season.
"He picks them up," Brown said of Sofele. "When he gets knocked down, he jumps right up and he's got a spirit that helps them to have confidence on the field."
Getting to this point took some time. Sofele averaged 86.8 yards per game as the Bears split their first eight games this season. Then, in what was partly an effort to ease the pressure on quarterback Zach Maynard, Cal gave new emphasis to the running attack.
Over the final four games, as Sofele averaged 143 yards, Maynard's performance also elevated and the Bears won three of four games.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford said credit is shared with those doing the blocking, but he's gratified that tweaking the offense produced the desired result.
"No question, the run game has helped balance the offense and made us successful down the stretch," he said.
Running on a Texas defense that features seven first- or second-team All-Big 12 selections won't be easy. In seven victories, the Longhorns allowed an average of 82.1 rushing yards.
"We've played some pretty good teams," Sofele said. "We're not too stressed out."
There was no reason to believe when the season began that Sofele would have 1,270 rushing yards at this point -- sixth-most in a season by a Cal back. A backup last season, Sofele was viewed by outsiders as something of a situational back.
Sofele understands the questions others had. But the doubters also fuel him.
"Their perception of me might have been, 'He's a small guy, he's not an every-down back,' " said Sofele. "I just had a bunch of that stuff going through my ear all summer. In Pop Warner (football) and Little League (baseball), that's where it started. It just motivates me to do better."
Even Tedford had to see for himself that Sofele could run effectively between the tackles.
"He really can. I think that's where he's really grown the most," Tedford said. "His ability to hit the hole full speed and break a couple tackles ... he's always going forward."
Brown said the Longhorns are impressed.
"He's really good. He's got tremendous vision and patience, but he's got power," Brown said. "Sometimes the shorter backs are much harder to tackle because they're so thick. He makes a lot of yards after contact."
"Always," Tedford said. "You have to train your eyes, you have to stay disciplined. There's a lot of things they have up their sleeve and they've had a lot of time to add them."