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September 28, 2007

Undersized Forsett brings big game

Video Preview | Head-to-Head Breakdown

Justin Forsett's size indicates he can't handle the grind of carrying a team's rushing attack.

His statistics tell an entirely different story.

Forsett (5 feet 8, 196 pounds) has averaged 168.3 rushing yards the six times in his career he has received more than 15 carries. This season, he ranks 14th in the nation in rushing (121.0 ypg) and has prevented California's rushing attack from slipping a notch after losing Marshawn Lynch, the No. 12 pick in April's NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills.

California and Oregon are best known for their high-powered passing attacks, but Saturday's Pac-10 showdown at Autzen Stadium also features the Pac-10's two top rushers. Oregon's Jonathan Stewart is 11th nationally in rushing (125.8 ypg).

"He's definitely been a guy who's carried the load for us so far,'' California coach Jeff Tedford said of Forsett.

If Forsett ever became angry about the questions surrounding his durability, he didn't let it show. After all, this is hardly the first time skeptics have doubted him. Forsett grew up in Florida and attended high school in Texas, but he didn't receive offers from big-time programs in either of those two football-crazy states. Coaches took one look at Forsett's 5-8 frame and assumed he wasn't big enough to handle the grind of big-time college football.

Forsett, who went to high school at Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas, sent videotapes to colleges across the country after he said Notre Dame pulled a scholarship offer just before National Signing Day in 2004.

"It was a tremendous blessing for me to end up where I am," Forsett said. "At the time, I didn't see it. It definitely hurt. But God works in mysterious ways. I couldn't be in a better place."

California coaches considered Forsett's availability so late in the recruiting process a blessing in itself.

"We watched his tape and thought this was too good to be true," Tedford said. "(We thought) there's got to be something wrong with him, a skeleton in the closet somewhere.

"We thoroughly investigated everything about him, brought him in with his father. He's the greatest kid you'd ever want to meet."

Forsett wasted little time making an impact. He rushed for a combined 1,674 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his first three seasons at Cal as one of the nation's top reserve tailbacks. He was behind J.J. Arrington and Lynch his first year on campus before teaming with Lynch the past two seasons to give Cal one of the Pac-10's top one-two punches in the backfield. Along the way, Forsett learned plenty from each of his predecessors.

"J.J. Arrington was a guy who really took care of his body and everything," Forsett said. "He always told me after practice the most important thing is to take care of your body, to do the extra stretching and everything and to do the extra lifting to set yourself apart from others.

"Marshawn was a guy who's always having fun out there. He'd help me stay loose and remember it's a game and to have fun out there."

Forsett has adopted each of those lessons. He's having fun each Saturday in part because he worked so hard during the offseason to prepare himself for this moment.

Now that Lynch has moved on to the NFL, Forsett knew he would have a greater burden as the Golden Bears' feature back. He worked to get himself ready for the physical demands of his new assignment. His teammates notice the difference.

"He's buffer," California quarterback Nate Longshore said. "He put on some muscle to withstand some of the abuse."

Forsett has handled his expanded role as well as anyone could have expected. He is tied for the Pac-10 lead with seven touchdowns and has played particularly well down the stretch of early season victories over Tennessee and Arizona.

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti knows all too well how Forsett gets stronger over the course of a game. Forsett gained 115 yards on 16 carries in the fourth quarter alone when the Bears beat the Ducks 45-24 last season.

"He's the guy who makes that offense go," Bellotti said.

Forsett may need to deliver a repeat performance Saturday as the Bears try to keep Oregon's high-powered offense on the sideline.

Stewart gained just 25 yards on 18 carries against California last year, but he's been virtually unstoppable this season. He has rushed for at least 160 yards in each of the past two games while helping give Oregon the Pac-10's top rushing attack.

Forsett has plenty of respect for Stewart after competing against him in a 60-meter dash during the most recent indoor track season.

"Running against him in track, I know he can move," Forsett said. "He's a great athlete."

Forsett remembers that Stewart posted the faster time that particular day. Consider this Forsett's shot at revenge.

Game of the Week: No. 6 California vs. No. 11 Oregon
California run offense vs. Oregon run defense
EDGE: California Forsett rushed for 163 yards in Cal's 45-24 victory over Oregon last season and is playing even better as the Bears' feature back this season. True freshman Jahvid Best's astounding average of 12.4 yards per carry underscores his breakaway ability. Forsett and Best should find plenty of running room against an Oregon defense that ranks eighth in the Pac-10 against the run and allows 4.1 yards per carry. Houston's Anthony Alridge rushed for 205 yards against Oregon in the Ducks' season opener. Michigan's Mike Hart and Stanford's Anthony Kimble also have reached the 100-yard mark against Oregon..
California pass offense vs. Oregon pass defense
EDGE: California California quarterback Nate Longshore has so many weapons that even All-America candidate DeSean Jackson's slow start (17 catches, 151 yards) hasn't hindered the passing attack. Defenses have devoted so much attention to stopping Jackson that it has allowed Lavelle Hawkins to enjoy a breakthrough season (25 catches, 315 yards, two touchdowns). Robert Jordan, Best and tight end Craig Stevens also have touchdown catches this year. Longshore must watch out for a ball-hawking Oregon defense that has picked off six passes this year. Patrick Chung and Jairus Byrd have two interceptions each.
Oregon run offense vs. California run defense
EDGE: Oregon Jonathan Stewart leads the Pac-10 with 503 rushing yards and averages 7.7 yards per carry, but he doesn't have a history of success against California. The Bears limited him to 25 yards on 18 carries last season. Stewart has played much more consistently so far this season and has rushed for at least 111 games in each of his past three games. California also must account for the running ability of quarterback Dennis Dixon, who averages more than 6 yards per carry and rushed for 141 yards in a season-opening victory over Houston. California ranks 30th in the nation in run defense and has allowed 3.2 yards per carry. Arizona gained 29 yards on 20 carries in a 45-27 loss to California last week. Then again, Arizona doesn't have any runners of Stewart's caliber.
Oregon pass offense vs. California pass defense
EDGE: Oregon Dixon threw three interceptions against California last season, but he looks like a different player this year. In fact, Dixon hasn't thrown an interception all season and ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency. Oregon's passing game suffered a blow last week when Brian Paysinger suffered a season-ending knee injury, but Jaison Williams (18 catches, 267 yards) and Cameron Colvin (12, 170) give the Ducks a couple of reliable targets. Oregon's line better make sure Dixon has time to throw against a California defense that averages 3.3 sacks per game.
California special teams vs. Oregon special teams
EDGE: California California has one of the nation's most electrifying players in Jackson, who has returned six punts for touchdowns in his career. Oregon boasts dangerous return men in Stewart and Andiel Brown. Brown's average of 12.2 yards per punt return this season isn't far off Jackson's average of 13.4. California's Jordan Kay is 4-for-6 on field-goal attempts, and Andrew Larson averages 42 yards per punt. Oregon's Matt Evensen is 5-for-7 on field-goal attempts, while Josh Syria averages 42.8 yards per punt.
California coaching staff vs. Oregon coaching staff
EDGE: Even California coach Jeff Tedford spent four years as an offensive coordinator on Mike Bellotti's staff at Oregon before beginning his head-coaching career. The former colleagues have split four meetings with each other since. Both teams are benefiting from changes at offensive coordinator. Tedford is serving as his own coordinator this season, while Dixon has benefited with the arrival of Chip Kelly from I-AA New Hampshire..
California will win if
The Bears will try to run the ball effectively and force Dixon into repeating the mistakes he made in last season's game. And it certainly would help if Jackson became more of a factor in the passing attack.
Oregon will win if:
The Ducks need to continue the formula that's worked so well this season. The team with the Pac-10's top rushing offense needs to continue running the ball with Stewart and Dixon to keep California's high-powered offense off the field.
California has lost in its past seven trips to Oregon and hasn't won at Autzen Stadium since 1987. The Bears looked vulnerable in hostile environments last season, when they opened the season with a 35-18 loss at Tennessee that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. California's players say they've learned from that experience and now are ready for any kind of atmosphere. This game gives them a chance to prove it
The picks
Megargee's pick: Oregon 34-31
Other Rivals.com expert picks:
Mike Huguenin, college sports editor: Cal 34-28
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Cal 34-31
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Oregon 38-28
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

Steve Megargee is a college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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