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Running back Isi Sofele would love to enjoy a breakout game for Cal against the Utah Utes on Saturday, and not just because he expects to have lots of friends and family members attending the game against his hometown team at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

The Golden Bears might actually win, if he does.

Sofele has grown into the starting tailback for the Golden Bears, nearly four years after choosing them over the Utes and others out of Cottonwood High School in Salt Lake City — largely because of their membership in what was then the Pac-10 Conference.

And though he leads the team and ranks fifth in the new-look Pac-12 by rushing for 90.5 yards per game, the fleet and shifty junior has carried the ball less and less during conference play as the Golden Bears have committed too many turnovers, fallen behind and been forced to rely on the inconsistent arm of quarterback Zach Maynard.

"We're killing ourselves," Sofele said. "We need to learn how to finish off plays. We're mentally focusing on that."

The Golden Bears have lost all three of their league games, just like the Utes.

But if Sofele and the Golden Bears can find some holes in what Sofele called a "great" Utah defense that ranks second in the league behind powerhouse Stanford, they probably can take some pressure off Maynard and improve their chances of victory.

"We're just focusing on coming out here [in practice] and getting better each day," Sofele said.

That's something the 5-foot-8, 190-pounder already has done, according to his coach.

"He's improved each week," coach Jeff Tedford said. "With the more carries he gets and the more playing time he gets, he becomes more natural. He's hitting holes better, he's seeing things better. He's a gifted guy, he's a very tough guy, he's a very quick guy. I think each week he is improving."

The Bears, though, maybe not so much.

They won their first three games while scoring 45 points per game, but have lost their past three (all in league play) while managing less than 16. Sofele averaged 21 carries and 94 yards in the wins, but just 14 carries and 87 yards in the losses.

He's coming off a season-low 44 yards on 12 carries in a 30-9 loss to USC last week, a game in which the Bears committed five turnovers.

Still, "we would have been delighted to have him in our program," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

The Utes tried to get him, in fact, but Whittingham said Sofele wasn't ready to make a commitment when they extended him an early scholarship offer.

By the time Sofele had examined all his options, the Utes had filled their recruiting needs and Sofele had decided he wanted to attend college out of state, and play in the Pac-10.

"That's how recruiting is nowadays," Whittingham said. "You offer three or four guys for one spot, and the first guy to take it gets it, and you move on."

Whittingham sounded far from bitter about it, though.

More like impressed.

He compared Sofele to Utah's John White, the league's third-leading rusher at 111.8 yards per game. The two backs "have a lot of similarities in terms of stature and speed and quickness and their running style," Whittingham said, "so I think [Sofele] is a very good player."

"He's doing a great job for Cal," Whittingham added.

Sofele would love to do a great job against the Utes, too.

Not only will his parents and many other friends and relatives attend the game, but he said he has always dreamed of playing against his hometown team. He did play for the Golden Bears when they lost to the Utes in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl, but only on special teams.

He also knows about half of the Utes, including his cousin, fullback Max Moala, and linebacker Matt Martinez, one of three former Cottonwood players on the roster.

"It's always been a dream to play against my hometown team," Sofele said. "I'm excited about this game."

Showdown on the ground

The game between Utah and Cal on Saturday pits two of the top five rushers in the Pac-12 Conference:

Player School Att. Yds. TD Avg.

LaMichael James Oregon 95 852 8 170.4

Chris Polk Washington 134 728 3 121.3

John White Utah 128 671 6 111.8

Stepfan Taylor Stanford 101 559 5 93.2

Isi Sofele Cal 103 543 4 90.5 —

Isi Sofele file

Cal's Isi Sofele averages 90.5 rushing yards, but has had fewer carries during league play:

Opponent Att. Yds. TD Result

Fresno State 24 88 2 W, 36-21

at Colorado 20 84 0 W, 36-33

Presbyterian 18 110 2 W, 63-12

at Washington 17 98 0 L, 31-23

at Oregon 12 119 0 L, 43-15

USC 12 44 0 L, 30-9