Late last September, Arizona State was facing not only a difficult game against a talented Pac-12 rival, but the indignity of a losing streak that dated back over a decade. They responded with a magnificent 43-22 win over USC that snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Trojans.
One year later, they get another chance to accomplish that same feat.
The Sun Devils, as noted in the week's most overhyped statistic, have not won in Berkeley since 1997, and have just one win over Cal in the last nine games. Riding high off their dominant win over Utah and a 3-1 start, ASU sets their sights on remaining atop the Pac-12 South with a win over Cal.
Make Maynard Beat You
Like the Sun Devils, the Bears have been a very inconsistent team over the last few years. Not coincidentally, a major reason for that has been the play of their quarterback, Zach Maynard.
Maynard is a talented and athletic lefty who is capable of making big plays, as ASU saw last year when he threw for 237 yards and a score while running for 40 more and another touchdown, all without a turnover. However, he's just as likely to make a stunningly bad turnover as he is a highlight reel play.
The strength of Cal's offense is their running game, with Isi Sofele (1,322 yards in 2011), C.J. Anderson (three touchdowns versus ASU last year) and Brendan Bigelow (wow). ASU has struggled to stop the run this year. Hmmm.
ASU will need to focus on slowing down the Cal running game. If they can, they will force the game onto Maynard, and as many defenses have found out over the last two years, that's a good thing.
Exploit the Cal Offensive Line
One of the reasons for Maynard's struggles this season has been Cal's offensive line. The unit brought a host of inexperience into the season, as the results have shown.
They've been solid with their run blocking but have been a disaster when dropping to pass protection. The Bears have allowed an average of 4.3 sacks per game, which currently ranks 117th in the nation.
That figure bodes well for ASU. The Sun Devils new attacking defense leads the nation in tackles-for-loss and is 10th in sacks. The quartet of Carl Bradford, Junior Onyeali, Will Sutton and Chris Young have been on a dominant tear in opponent's backfields, and should they continue that reign of terror in Berkeley, the 15-year drought should soon end.
14-0, 14-0, 0-10, 21-0.
Those have been the scores after one quarter of ASU's games this year. It doesn't take a degree from the W.P. Carey School to see that when ASU has the early lead, things go well. When they fell behind on the road, it was bad.
ASU's road woes are well documented: 5-18 over their last 23 games away from Sun Devil Stadium. For many reasons, the team has almost always gotten off to bad starts that required them to play catch up for the rest of the game. Even this new era of Todd Graham football got off to the same start.
In order to score the first of hopefully many road wins today, ASU needs to hit Cal first and hit Cal often. It's always much better to land the first punch than to take it.
Keep the Bears in Front
As seen in the section above, Cal has some explosive playmakers in their backfield (take another look at Bigelow). They're not alone.
Keenan Allen is one of the elite wide receivers in the nation. He is a 6-foot-3 speedster with great body control, and represents the biggest offensive threat yet faced by ASU. Behind him are three true freshman, but they are also dangerous. Bryce Treggs is a five-star recruit who has 10 catches for 145 yards on the year, and Chris Harper is second to Allen with 16 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
Cal has some explosive players, and all it will take is one mistake to set them free to the end zone. The Sun Devil defense will need to keep them in front and make sure tackles, or risk ending up on the wrong side of a YouTube highlight reel of their own
Prove It's No Fluke
Last week, ASU's wide receivers had their first good game of the season. Rashad Ross had five catches for 87 yards and a touchdown, Jamal Miles had four for 59 and Kevin Ozier popped off a 52-yarder to set up a field goal. Alonzo Agwuenu also notched his first career reception.
That success helped open things up for the team's top target, 3-back Chris Coyle (five for 62), who had been seeing more coverage attention in recent weeks as the wide receivers struggled. With that success, it's not surprising that the Sun Devils racked up 512 yards of offense on a Utah team that came into the game ranked 15th in the nation in total defense.
Clearly, when the wide receivers are making plays, or at least providing a valid threat of doing so, the Sun Devil offense works very well. It will be imperative that the group continues their positive momentum into Berkeley.