Arizona State (3-1, 1-0) at Cal (1-3, 0-1)
Kickoff: 1:00 p.m. PST / 4:00 p.m. EST
Location: Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, CA
Point Spread: Pick 'em (Opened at Cal -1)
TV / Radio: FX / 92.3 FM
Weather Forecast: High 70s, partly cloudy
ASU Uniforms: Black/white/black
Series History: Although Cal leads the all-time series by a somewhat close margin of 17-14, it's been all Bears as of late. Cal has won eight of the last nine, and ASU hasn't won in Berkeley since 1997. Cal won last season's game 47-38 in Tempe, and over the last two meetings has put up 97 points.
Cal Last Week: Following up their hard fought loss on the road to the Buckeyes in Week 3, Cal faced another ranked challenge away from home. They opened conference play against USC, who themselves were coming off a tough loss to Stanford. While the Bears held Matt Barkley to just 192 yards and two touchdowns while intercepting him twice, their defense was gashed for 292 yards and the Cal offense could only muster 250 yards in a 27-9 defeat.
ASU on Offense: In a crazy 2012 season full of unexpected twists and turns so far, perhaps there is no greater surprise than the continued stellar play of Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly. Following his 326-yard, three-touchdown (and no turnover) showing against Utah, Kelly sits atop the Pac-12 in passer rating, and is now in the conversation as the conference's second-best quarterback. But there is still a gaping hole on his resume: a road win. Kelly will have a chance to fill that on Saturday.
He'll be facing a Cal defense that lost several key players from a season ago—including Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year winner in linebacker Mychal Kendricks. While the Bears are lowly ranked (91st in scoring defense) due to the struggles of having so many new players and playing a tough schedule, they do have a lot of talent. As always, they bring a very aggressive 3-4 set on the field under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
One aspect making Kelly's ascension even more impressive is the Sun Devil running game that has been, at best, very average. Cameron Marshall has just 95 yards through four games, and while D.J. Foster and Marion Grice have had their moments, the consistency has not been there.
"We want to pride ourselves on running the football, running it with toughness and physicality, and being productive as well," ASU running backs coach Larry Porter told us this week. "I don't think we've gotten to the point that we want to be as of yet."
That trio for ASU should see a hefty workload on the ground and in the air against Cal's front seven. The line features a hefty trio, led by the very talented Deandre Coleman. Coleman and company will look to occupy the Sun Devil blockers in order to free up the four linebackers to makes plays. Linebackers Robert Mullins (31 tackles) and J.P. Hurrell (team-high 2.5 sacks) will attack from the interior, while ultra-talented sophomore Chris McCain is a threat along the outside. The Sun Devil offensive line will need to watch for McCain along the edges, while also defending up the middle, where the Bears like to run stunts with their linemen.
Last week, the ASU wide receiving corps had their first good game of the year, with Rashad Ross, Jamal Miles and Kevin Ozier all making big contributions. They'll need to keep that positive momentum going, facing a very experienced Cal secondary. The four Bears' starters love to be physical, so the receivers better be ready. If they can find success on the outside, that should open things up along the seams for 3-back Chris Coyle to continue his great season.
- ASUs RB vs Cal's Front Seven: This is a battle of units looking for improvement. The Sun Devils have had some issues with the run game over the last two weeks, while Cal's normal stout defense ranks 96th in the nation against the run. This could either be the week that Cameron Marshall gets back on track, or a return to form for a young Bears' defense.
- LT Evan Finkenberg & LG Jamil Douglas vs. RDE Deandre Coleman: While most defensive ends in a 3-4 set look to set the edge and engage blockers, Coleman also has the size (6'5", 309) and quickness to make plays of his own. He can sometimes take plays off, but he's also capable of being very disruptive. The left side of ASU's line must be diligent to contain Coleman so as not to add to their burden of repelling the linebackers.
- WRs Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles vs CBs Marc Anthony and Steve Williams: It took four weeks, but ASU's receivers have a pulse. Now we'll see if it was the start of a trend or a fluke. Anthony is a very talented and physical corner who will jam ASU's receivers at the line and be a force against the run. Williams is a faster corner more apt to use technique over physicality, and each will present a firm challenge.
- QB Taylor Kelly vs FS Josh Hill: ASU's passing game will face a very experienced Cal secondary, with Hill as the last line of defense. A senior with 24 starts to his credit, Hill flys just everywhere for the Bears from his free safety spot, leading the team with 32 tackles. Sun Devil cornerback will need to be very aware of Hill at all times, who can be a force against the run or pass.
ASU on Defense: Barring a horrific pre-game meal eaten by Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, ASU's streak of facing three straight backups will end on Saturday.
Cal, like so many teams these days, runs a lot of their offense out of the shotgun, often with three and four wide receivers on the field. At the center of that attack is Maynard, whose only consistency is his inconsistency. He's a mobile lefty who can extend plays and strike downfield or throw a costly pick, each with about equal regularity. ASU saw firsthand the "good" Maynard last year, when he threw for 237 yards and a score and ran for 40 more yards and another touchdown without a turnover.
Maynard's favorite target is junior Keenan Allen, who happens to be a) an All-American caliber wide receiver and b) Maynard's half-brother. Allen is an elite player with his great size and speed, and he should see plenty of attention from ASU's secondary. Behind Allen, there is a lot of youth, with three true freshmen—Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper and Darius Powe—up next on the depth chart. Treggs and Harper have had early success and can burn ASU is too much attention is paid to Allen and vice versa.
The strength of the offense lies in the backfield. Isi Sofele is coming off a 1,322 yard, 10-touchdown season, with 145 of those yards coming against ASU. C.J. Anderson is the power back, and he had two touchdowns on the ground and a 74-yard receiving score last year against the Sun Devils. Finally, the speedy Brendan Bigelow rounds out the bunch. The Sun Devils linebacking corps of Brandon Magee, Chris Young and Steffon Martin will be critical in attempting to shut down the Bears' running game. If they can manage to slow the Cal trio, that will force the game into the unstable hands of Maynard.
A big part of Cal's struggles this year have been the product of a sub-par offensive line, which has given up a total 18 sacks already, which ranks 117th in the nation. If not for Maynard's mobility, that figure would be higher. This will be the game's critical match-up, where the tackle-for-loss artists along ASU's defensive line—Will Sutton, Junior Onyeali and Carl Bradford—could be in for a huge day. If that group can replicate their success from last week, ASU should end their 15-year Berkeley drought with ease.
- DT Will Sutton vs. C Brian Schwenke: Schwenke is an experienced senior, but is new to the center spot after spending the last two years at left guard. He's a tough 300-pounder, but will have his hands full with Sutton, who is playing like a man possessed. If Schwenke can't slow Sutton down, even with help, ASU's newest star can throw the entire Cal offensive gameplan out the window.
- ASU Secondary vs. WR Keenan Allen: In Allen, the Bears may have the single-best player on the field Saturday. The junior is one of the best wide receivers in the nation, he's got great size (6'3", 210) and speed to create match-up nightmares. Cornerbacks Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor will have their hands full in limiting Allen on Saturday.
- SPUR Chris Young vs. QB Zach Maynard: There are very few players in the nation who have been more disruptive to opposing offenses than Young. In just four games, he's racked up 8.5 tackles-for-loss, and is the biggest reason why ASU leads the nation in that category. He attacks offenses from everywhere, and Maynard must account for him on every play, or risk adding to Young's total.
- ASU's Front Seven vs. Cal RBs Isi Sofele, C.J. Anderson and Brendan Bigelow: Even with Allen, the Cal passing game has been inconsistent, but their running game is strong with three dangerous backs. They can attack with a 1,300-yard rusher (Sofele), power (Anderon) or speed (Bigelow). The one weak spot for ASU's top 10 defense has been on the ground, and Cal is capable of ripping off big chunks of yards and eating up the clock. It will be up to the Sun Devil front seven to make sure the backs are shut down.
Special Teams: Jamal Miles has yet to show his dynamic return skills this season, but he's still a threat to take it to the house on any return. Alex Garoutte had a nice game against Utah, hitting three field goals, with his lone miss coming from 51 yards. He is now four of five on the year. Josh Hubner continues a strong season, and is among the conference's best at pinning opponent's inside their 20.
Cal is replacing both specialists, and thus far, it's been a little rough. Kicker Vincenzo D'Amato continues the Cal trend of lots of vowels at the kicker spot, but not the recent run of success. He has had a rough season, making only seven of his 12 field goals, including an 0-for-3 showing against Ohio State. Even worse, all five misses have been from under 43 yards. Punter Cole Leininger has seven of his 17 kicks inside the 20, but ranks 71st nationally in punting average at 39.7.
The Bears are much better in the return game. Keenan Allen is averaging 15.4 yards on punt returns and already has a touchdown on the year, and the dangerous Brendan Bigelow is the top kickoff returner, averaging over 25 yards on his nine runbacks.
ASU's To-Do List:
- Shut down the Cal run game & force the game on Maynard
- Continue the success penetrating opponent's backfields on defense
- Start strong and get an early lead
- Play a complete, Todd Graham-style 60 minutes
What It All Means: This will be the most important game of the season...at least until the next one. However, there can be no overstating the significance of this battle. Not only will it be a tough contest against a talented conference team, but it will also find ASU confronting their biggest demon: the road. Over the last 23 games away from Sun Devil Stadium, the team is just 5-18. The uneven performance against Missouri created both doubt and optimism, and this Saturday should give us a very clear direction as to the eventual answer.
This should be a very evenly contested game, one in which ASU can't afford to fall behind by much. The offense should be able to score enough, so it will fall onto the Sun Devil defense to shut down Allen and the talented trio of backs. The recent momentum suggest that it will happen.
Prediction: ASU wins 38-31