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November 17, 2011
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BERKELEY -- It would figure that the bulk of the California football team's All-Pac-12 All-Academics would along the offensive line. Among the nine players named to the first and second teams, as well as honorable mentions, three are starters along the offensive front, two play fullback and another is a backup lineman.
The position that traditionally requires and attracts the most intelligent of players, the offensive line boasts starters Mitchell Schwartz, Justin Cheadle and Matt Summers-Gavin, as well as back-up Mark Brazinski on the All-Academic rolls.
Brazinski (3.68 GPA, Business Administration and Media Studies), Schwartz (3.24 GPA, American Studies) and fullback John Tyndall (3.17 GPA, Interdisciplinary Studies/Peace and Conflict Studies) were named to the first team, while fullback Will Kapp (3.03 GPA, American Studies) and Summers-Gavin (3.13 GPA, Political Science) were named to the second team. Cheadle was named an honorable mention, with a 3.14 GPA in American Studies.
In speaking on re-learning the complex offensive line play calls from returned offensive line coach Jim Michalczik earlier in the week, Schwartz showed the intelligence and quick wit associated with his new status as one of the more intelligent players in the league.
"He had changed a little bit from the Raiders, as well, so it wasn't the same, exact coach Michalczik. The calls are different. We have a lot of calls for every different situation - what combination we're going to use, that type of thing - so we've got to re-learn that. Luckily, we go to Cal, so I think we're kind of a little bit bright, so I think we can pick that up fairly well," Schwartz smiled.
Kind of a little bit bright?
"We don't want to flatter ourselves too much," Schwartz laughed. "We're able to pick up the mental aspect of picking up calls, because if you don't know the calls, you won't be on the same page, and if you're not on the same page, there's going to be weaknesses. We have to learn the calls, so we can play as a unit."
That group has not only gotten the job done in the classroom, but on the field, as well, over the past two games. The big uglies have plowed the way for 588 total rushing yards over the past two weeks, after a dispiriting loss down in Los Angeles to UCLA.
[RELATED: UCLA Recap, Defensive Analysis and First Down Issues]
"From the UCLA game, going forward, it's kind of a refocusing on practicing the right way, how to do things the right way throughout the week, and that's really our focus," Schwartz said. "That obviously wasn't the best game for us, as a team. It's just kind of focusing on basic fundamental stuff. Winning the game doesn't start on Saturday. It starts Sunday, when you're evaluating stuff from the week before. You can go out there and you can beat a team pretty well, but you go back on film, and not everything's going to be perfect, because obviously, there's stuff that you need to work on.
"You're always trying to get your technique to where it'll work against the best guys you're going to face all year. Obviously, Stanford's a pretty good rushing defense, a pretty good defense in general, so any way, we have our hands full."
Cal goes into this year's Big Game against a Cardinal squad which boasts the No. 2 scoring defense in the conference (20.2 points per game), the No. 2 total defense (330.3 yards per game) and the No. 1 rushing defense.
Stanford has held opponents to the second-lowest yards-per-carry figure in the Pac-12 (3.3) and 94.2 yards per game on the ground. The Bears, despite running all over Washington State and Oregon State over the past two weeks, have the No. 4 rushing offense in the conference, with 1,674 total yards, 4.7 yards per carry (fifth in the league) and a 167.4 yards per game average. Schwartz credited that standing to the teachings of Michalczik, who has turned the front five into a pleasant surprise for Cal fans this season.
"Yeah. You can see the results on the field," Schwartz said. "It's just the attention to detail, that perfectionist attitude. We had a great game, yeah, but you go back and you look at technique stuff on film, not everything's great. There's a lot of stuff you've got to clean up and a lot of stuff that you've got to refocus on. Offensive line is a repetition position. Even those guys in the pros, they're 35- and 37-year-old guys, doing the same drills every single day, because you're just never going to be perfect. It's just that mindset to be able to come to work every day and polish it up.
"It was pretty familiar. There's different technique types of things that you can do, not so much in the run game, but more in the pass game. There's different ways to set for what the defense is doing. It takes a little bit of time to get used to that."
Get used to it, they have, as the line - including the fullbacks and tight ends - have paved the way for tailback Isi Sofele to become the team's ninth 1,000-yard rusher in the past 10 years.
[Read more on the running game in Gorcey's Strong Suit]
"You can definitely feel it," Schwartz said, when asked if the past two games have been a throwback to rushing attacks of seasons past. "It's cool to be able to run the ball. That's the goal of the offense. It's going to take the pressure off of everyone else, the offensive line, if we can get into the opposing defense, it kind of opens everything else up for us. It'll bring a safety down to the box, it'll open up the passing game and it'll leave us third- or second-and-shorts where the defense doesn't know really what they can do. They can't pin their ears back and just blitz. It's definitely a good thing that we've been able to kind of get back to, and kind of re-establish that identity a little bit."
Last week, while Sofele rushed for a career-best 190 yards, his back-up C.J. Anderson rushed for a career-high 96 yards in his first season in Division I football after transferring from local Laney College in Oakland.
"I've been pleased with the way the last couple weeks, the way our guys have executed in the run game and how our backs have run the football," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "This is a new week. It's a new week against a very physical defense, a very good defense, so it would be great if we were able to sustain and have a run game, so we can stay balanced and stay out of long-yardage situations."
In all, nine different running backs -- including fullbacks Kapp, Tyndall and Nico Dumont, as well as tailbacks Sofele, Anderson, Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, Brendan Bigelow, Mike Manuel and the now-injured Dasarte Yarnway -- have rushed for a total of 1,496 yards and 16 touchdowns on 290 carries.
"It's pretty cool. You don't really always know who's in the game as an offensive lineman," Schwartz laughed. "You kind of get done with the play, you might talk to the guy next to you and you hear the play, you go to the line and you're not quite sure who's back there all the time. You just go block and we try and give them good holes, and you saw them breaking tackles and making guys miss, and that's the type of thing where we're all meshing together. It's not just us opening holes for them; they also make us look pretty good when we're making big plays like that. It's just great to see the whole offense working together. You don't have long runs without receivers blocking down field and tight ends doing great stuff. The run game's not just an offensive line thing; it's a team thing."
The emphasis on rushing over the past two games has helped to open up the passing game for quarterback Zach Maynard, who -- while not throwing nearly as much as he had earlier in the season -- has appeared far more comfortable, especially when rolling left, to Schwartz's side of the line, paradoxically showing better throwing mechanics than when he's dropping back.
"I would say so," Maynard said of his mechanical switcheroo. "I'm a flexible guy, so throwing on the run, I would say, is easier for me, and I just believe in my arm and I believe in my body, so I just try to hit the target as best I can."
[Read Big Game features on Cal's All-Academic kicker and on one player looking for A Little Retribution]
It certainly helps with he's playing behind a line that has started all but one game together this season, with only left guard Brian Schwenke sitting out last week due to an illness.
"It's huge for us," Maynard said. "To get momentum with the running game is huge. It's taken a lot of pressure off me, so we don't have to depend on me throwing the ball every down. The running backs are doing a great job, the offensive line is doing a great job getting off the ball and the receivers are doing a great job of blocking downfield. The tight ends are doing a huge job, and the fullbacks. The running game is huge for us."
What's taken so long for the Bears to find that running groove? It could be that the offensive line -- which came into the season as a big question mark -- was still a relative unknown, or that Sofele was maturing into a more physical back. But, as the season has progressed, both Sofele and the boys up front have answered virtually every challnge.
"Every week is a new week, and it's nice to be able to run the ball and stay balanced and not be one-dimensional," Tedford said. "Typically, success in the run game lends to more run opportunities, to try and stay out of long-yardage situations ? I don't know that it's taken long to do it. When you have success running, you're going to continue to run."
In some of the more lopsided losses this year, though, Cal has not done that -- nor did the Bears seem to be possessed of the self-confidence to stick to the run -- against Oregon and USC, when Cal abandoned the run in favor of the pass as deficits mounted.
"Some games, we haven't been successful running the football, but I think Isi, definitely has grown a lot as a back," Tedford said. "With his experience, he's running much harder, he's seeing the holes better and he's become more explosive, so I think a lot of it has to do with that, and the offensive line has gelled nicely, so I think it has to do with a little bit of everything.
"I just think it's, I'm not sure that they weren't mature at the beginning, I just think that we've improved through the season as far as the line working together and having the backs run a little bit better and having C.J. come on to help alleviate some of the runs for Isi and some of the load, so I think having all that happen, I think the players -- Isi and C.J. -- have matured through the season."
This week will be that running game's biggest test thus far, going up against a Cardinal front that features the conference's leader in tackles for loss in Stanford junior Chase Thomas, who has registered 14.5 TFLs for 83 yards this season. Sophomores Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner are tied for 11th in that category, with 8.0 apiece.
Thomas is also first in the Pac-12 in forced fumbles, with four.
"They play more of a pro-style 3-4 defense that's kind of en vogue these days, so you've got to be really good with communication," Schwartz said. "There could be a guy lined up five inches different from where he is normally, and it could totally change what the blocking scheme is, where you're going, that type of thing. It's not only offensive linemen. We've got to communicate with the running backs on pass protection. We've got to communicate with the tight ends on run plays, pass plays, so that's kind of been an emphasis -- communication as a whole unit, being able to spread it to the other positions so that there are no mental errors."
The Cardinal's defense bears more than a passing resemblance to that run by Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and has not missed a beat despite the injury to star run-stuffing linebacker Shayne Skov. In his place, sophomore Jarek Lancaster -- who played in all 13 games last season, mostly on special teams - leads Stanford in tackles with 52, and has recorded 2.5 sacks.
"We see it every day in practice, the stuff we do," Schwartz said. "They're really good with blitzes and disguising stuff and bringing up guys to different areas you don't expect them to come to, which, as you guys know, our defense is kind of like that, with coach Pendergast. In essence, we've been preparing for it all year."
Schwartz and the other Cal seniors have also now had a year to stew about last year's 48-14 loss at Memorial Stadium, a loss that still burns, especially when the team will head into the Hearst Greek Theater on Friday night without The Axe.
"It's always there, throughout the year, because whenever you see Stanford, you think, 'Aw, man.' You don't really realize it until something Stanford comes up and you're kind of like, 'Wow, we need to get that back,'" Schwartz said. "It's a little added motivation. It's pretty cool, and I think it's something that, as you get older, you appreciate more and more. You realize how important it is for everybody; not just the players and the coaches, but the fans as well. It's a huge thing for them, and we play for them. It's a big deal for everybody."
Spoiling the Cardinal's BCS hopes and quarterback Andrew Luck's Heisman aspirations are pretty good motivations, as well.
"That would be pretty great," Schwartz smiled. "I think that's kind of the goal, to go down there and beat them. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be able to. We've just got to not get taken in by the moment. There's the propensity for big games, for people to get uptight or try and do too much. You've just got to focus on doing your own job and when 11 guys are doing their jobs, it'll all come together pretty well."
Starting defensive end Ernest Owusu (3.31 GPA, Political Economy) was named to the first team, along with senior kicker Giorgio Tavecchio (3.71 GPA, Political Science).
Owusu's selection follows his choice as a Capital One Academic All-District 8 selection for the second consecutive year on Nov. 10. Tavecchio was a Capital One Academic All-District 8 choice along with Owusu.
The Bears' combined seven first and second-team selections were the most in the Pac-12, while their four first-team picks were the second-highest total in the conference behind only the five of Utah.
Linebacker Dan Camporeale (3.04 GPA, American Studies) was named an honorable mention Pac-12 All-Academic pick.