While the focus of Saturday's crucial contest between No. 6 Cal and No. 11 Oregon will squarely be on the shoulders of each team's productive quarterbacks, the battle between the opposing ball carriers will go a long way to determining who comes out on top as well. That rings especially true for the Bears, who will enter the hostile environment that is "The Jungle" of Auzten Stadium, in need of creating a productive ground game behind starter Justin Forsett and company.
Take a look at the Pac-10's two leading rushers so far this season and you'll find them lining up against each other when the Bears and the Ducks tangle 12:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon in Eugene (Ore.).
Through four games, Oregon bruiser Jonathan Stewart has recorded a conference leading 503 yards on the ground on 65 carries. Forsett on the other hand is right behind Stewart with 484 yards on 85 carries.
Forsett has racked up seven rushing touchdowns this season while Stewart has four. Additionally, Stewart holds the conference's longest run from scrimmage with an 88-yard scamper to his credit while Forsett holds a long of 39 yards.
For teams that are nationally known to fling the ball around, the truth is that both the Ducks and the Bears know how to run the ball as well. Whichever team can balance the pass with an effective running game might just hold the edge when Saturday rolls around.
"In my mind, Forsett is the person that makes the Cal offense go," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. "He's a tough runner, physical, runs north and south. Cal's offensive line along with Forsett forces you to stop the run."
"We are going to mix man and zone defensively. We have to keep (Cal) off balanced."
In total this season, Oregon (4-0) ranks first in the Pac-10 in rushing offense with a remarkable average of 299.8 yards per game while Cal (4-0) is third at 219.5 per game, with No. 1 USC squished in between.
Of course, those lofty stats center around each team's veteran ball carrier.
Forsett is first in the Pac-10 in total points scored, having racked up 42 in the Bears' four games this season. No more was Forsett's abilities on display than during Saturday's 45-27 victory over Arizona, where a hobbled Forsett came back into the contest late in the fourth quarter and carried the rushing load in Cal's final scoring drive.
"That's my job, to come into the game, just to be that spark," Forsett said of his five-carry performance during the drive. "For me to come back into the fourth quarter – that's what I'm supposed to do. That's what it's expected of me."
With reigning Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year Marshawn Lynch is now in the NFL, Forsett put on 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason to help his body shoulder the load of a starting running back on the Division I level. While pundits questioned whether Forsett could handle such a task given his 5-foot-8, 200-pound frame, the student-athlete teammates call "JTex" never had a doubt in his mind.
"Everything I put in is starting to pay off," he said. "It feels good. Just knowing that I haven't played my best football – I know I can do a lot more. I think it helps a lot and learn from the likes of J.J. (Arrington), Marshawn, Marcus O'Keith and Terrell Williams. When those guys talked a lot, I was able to watch and learn."
Forsett has recorded three 100-yard rushing games this season, and more impressive is that fact that he has gone over 100 yards in his career every time he's received more than 15 carries. During Saturday's contest against the Wildcats, Forsett notched 23 carries for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
"Justin is obviously a big part of this team," offensive guard Noris Malele said. "He's the leader, the captain of the offense. We ride off of him. He motivates us to play hard and open up them holes for him."
Malele – one fifth of a Cal offensive line that is playing superb football so far this season – also noted this week the difference he sees in Forsett's psyche.
"We see a lot of Justin's strength this year," he said. "We watch the film after the games on Sundays and we see what Justin has been doing. It shows that hard work can pay off. All we have to do (as o-linemen) is open up those lanes for him and Justin does the rest."
Stewart has had his moments in the sun this season as well. After entering the Oregon program as one of the more heralded recruits of the 2004 high school class, Stewart played well his freshman year, only to eclipse that effort with a 979-yard rushing performance last season.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound junior has continued his progression this season, averaging 125.8 yards per game in helping the Ducks to a rushing offense that ranks fourth nationally.
"It's key to be able to slow him down a little bit," Bears head coach Jeff Tedford said. "(Jonathan) is a great player and they have really good schemes and hopefully we don't let him get too loose to often. He's going to get some, you're not going to stop him completely, but hopefully we can limit him."
One of the issues that has "held" Stewart back in the past two seasons have been a spat of nagging injuries during his career and the lack of comfort level running out of Oregon's unique spread offense. In last year's contest against Cal, Stewart gained only 37 yards on 18 carries in a 45-24 Bears win.
With another year under his belt though, Belotti said Stewart has made many advancements in his running style.
"Much like Dennis Dixon his experience has made the difference," the long-time Ducks coach said. "It's his third year in the program. He's a very talented guy who each day is getting better as a running back. He's learned to use subtle change of pace and learned how to set up his blocks. Overall Jonathan has just been seeing the field much better."
Chris Nguon is the lead football writer for BearTerritory. He's well known for his recruiting coverage in the star-studded Oakland Athletic League, plus his numerous contributions with The Daily Californian, UC-Berkeley's only independent, student-run newspaper. Nguon is also a correspondent with the Oakland Tribune, and will cover Cal football in the fall of 2007.