ASU had a dominant 37-7 victory over the Utah Utes on Saturday, but they desperately need a win at California Berkeley to validate their early season success. The Sun Devils have not beaten the Golden Bears on the road since 1997. More importantly, the road incompetence has continued and is clearly the biggest issue ASU has.
Cal heads into Saturday's clash against ASU at 1-3 overall, showing signs of brilliance while also looking anemic at times. The sub-par record is slightly deceiving due to a tough early season schedule of road games at Ohio State and USC.
For the first time since Week One ASU will face a team's starting quarterback. Cal's senior signal caller Zach Maynard mimics the team's inconsistent play. Sun Devils defensive coordinator Paul Randolph will bring heavy pressure against the turnover-happy Maynard.
On paper this matchup heavily favors ASU. For example, ASU is averaging per game 41.3 points and allowing a minuscule 12.8, yet Cal is scoring 27.8 and letting up 31.0 per contest. However, with the Sun Devils struggling away from the Buttes, nothing can be taken for granted.
Listed below are my keys for the Sun Devils to end a trend of losing at Berkeley.
1. Forget Prior History, Today Is A New Day
As Bobby McFerrin would say, "don't worry, be happy." I personally love that mantra. ASU should be happy with their fast start and has little to dwell on. Who cares what happened in 2011, 2010 let alone in the 1990s?
ASU has been mostly stellar through four contests, and the 2012 squad is completely different than prior seasons. Sure, some players remain on roster, however this team's new attitude and focus makes them unrecognizable.
After eight penalties a week ago the Sun Devils moved down to the 12th least penalized team in the nation. Coach Todd Graham believes one yellow hanky is too many, but is still proud of ASU's discipline. In 2009 and 2011, the Sun Devils were penalized more than any FBS team.
Prior history is not commonly discussed in the locker room, but rather is a blown up statistic by media members. Against Cal, it will simply be about execution. Quarterback Taylor Kelly told me expectations are higher now and believes a good week of practice has put ASU in position to succeed at Berkeley.
2. Make Zach Maynard Win
Cal seemingly always has talented running backs year in year out. In recent seasons, they have featured Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen and even Marshawn Lynch. The talented group continues with Isi Sofele and Brendan Bigelow.
Coach Jeff Tedford understands the strengths of his offense, running about 61-percent of plays from scrimmage. Cal quarterback Zach Maynard has thrown at least one interception in three of four games to start 2012. Even against an unknown Southern Utah group, Maynard was okay at best, going 17 for 23 with 229 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Maynard's stats would be worse without star half-brother wide receiver Keenan Allen. Therefore, despite facing a starting quarterback for a change, ASU should not be scared.
The Sun Devils pass defense currently ranks atop the Pac-12, only giving up 139.8 yards per game. If Maynard struggled coming in, wait until he is greeted with Will Sutton's pressure...good luck!
Cal's rushing attack is a legitimate threat, ranking fourth in the conference sporting 175.8 yards per game. ASU has not been stellar at defending the run but will emphasize it against Cal.
The following quote is from Brad Denny's Q&A with Cal SB Nation Editor Nick Kranz, "He's (Maynard) not the type of quarterback who can win a game by himself." ASU's Taylor Kelly can put the backpack on and single-handedly lead ASU to W's, creating an evident imbalance between the two sides.
Cal running back Isi Sofele rushed for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Against ASU Sofele carried the rock 21 times for 145 yards and a trip to pay dirt. The Sun Devils need to do better against Cal's rushing attack this go around, forcing Maynard into an uncomfortable position.
3. Left Lane Hammer Down
For those who do not know ASU Coach Todd Graham well, "left lane, hammer down" is common phrase thrown around. The significance being, go fast and do not look back.
At home, the Sun Devil high-octane offense has been unstoppable, moving as if they were driving on the Autobahn. Juxtapose that with road games, and ASU is similar to a new 16-year old driver scared of going above the speed limit.
The "it's time" slogan is old news, but it's about time ASU plays a complete offensive game on the road. Kelly and company looked great at Missouri in the second half, but laid an egg in the first.
Once the opening whistle is blown, ASU needs to merge onto the field and hit the track fast. No messing around in the middle lanes, just bring the pain train all night long.
California's defense has normally been a stout unit, the same can not be said in 2012, as the Golden Bears currently rank 93rd of 120 teams in total defense. My bold guess is ASU's talented offensive unit strings together a nice road outing, nonchalantly driving in the left lane and hammering down!
Prediction Time: ASU over Cal 31-17