BERKELEY — Is it Brendan Bigelow's time yet?
Under Jeff Tedford, Cal football produced some of the top running backs in the country, a tradition that coach Sonny Dykes is pledging to continue through his high-speed "Bear Raid" offense. But as the Bears kick off the Dykes era against No. 22 Northwestern at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Bigelow isn't looking to carry the torch — he just wants to win football games.
"No individual comes before the team and that's the thing about Brendan — he'll tell you the same thing," Bears running backs coach Pierre Ingram said. "He cares more about winning than anything."
Bigelow exploded onto the scene as a sophomore at Cal last year. He recorded the longest run by an opponent in the history of Ohio Stadium with an 81-yard touchdown against Ohio State last September. Later in the game, he broke free for a 59-yard sprint to the end zone.
Despite averaging 9.8 yards per carry, Bigelow touched the ball only 51 times last season, stuck behind seniors Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson on the depth chart. Bigelow said his struggles with pass protection limited his carries, too.
"I guess I just wasn't ready," Bigelow said. "There were things I still wasn't familiar with."
Over the winter, Bigelow received a tough blow when a meniscus tear was discovered in his twice surgically-repaired right knee. In high school, Bigelow tore his ACL twice — once as a junior and, again, during a preseason scrimmage prior to his senior year at Central High School in Fresno.
"It was a bummer," Bigelow said. "But I'm a fighter — I'm going to keep going, keep pushing no matter what."
Bigelow went under the knife again in February and he sat out spring ball in April to recover. Throughout the spring, he rehabbed his knee, working on the leg press, doing single leg hops and running hills. Now, he's ready to go.
"I'm feeling explosive," Bigelow said. "I can get out and make that one cut and go without hesitating on it."
The 5-foot-10 running back is also feeling more comfortable in Dykes' streamlined offense, which features 13 plays, a significant reduction from Tedford's 500-play playbook.
While the "Bear Raid" is a pass-first offense, Ingram said the running game is an integral part of the attack. Last year, Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon led the nation with 28 offensive touchdowns.
This year, the running backs are wearing T-shirts that say "Respect the Code," an homage to the tradition established during the Tedford years.
But Bigelow will be splitting carries with sophomore Daniel Lasco and freshman Khalfani Muhammad. At this point, he isn't concerned about being the next Marshawn Lynch, Jahvid Best or Shane Vereen. He just wants to contribute and turn the program around.
"We're all going to go out there and eat," he said. "We just got to get better each day."
SEASON OPENERNo. 22 Northwestern vs. Cal
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Berkeley
RADIO: KGO (810 AM)