Last season, the Arizona State Sun Devils concluded their regular season slate with a 48-46 loss against the California Golden Bears. This season, ASU will face California to open conference play.
After falling short against San Diego State, the Golden Bears enter this weekend's matchup following a 50-43 upset win over then-No. 11 Texas. Quarterback Davis Webb connected with receiver Chad Hansen on 12 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bear Raid is alive and thriving. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils' defense—which is now primarily under the direction of defensive coordinator Keith Patterson—is surrendering 379.3 passing yards per game. The matchup poses to be an explosive one.
Despite finishing 0-3 in contests against team's with an Air Raid offensive scheme, this year, the Sun Devils are 1-0 against them this year (Texas Tech), and though they've conceded plenty of yards, have defeated two other pass-heavy units.
Let's take a look at the film and figure out what Cal brings, and what ASU can do to win.
Head Coach: Sonny Dykes
Offense: Air Raid ("Bear Raid")
It's consensus knowledge the Golden Bears' offense operates through the air. However, following the losses of Jared Goff, Kenny Lawler, Stephen Anderson, Bryce Treggs and Trevor Davis, the star power isn't the same. It's evolved, starting at the quarterback position.
Davis Webb stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 230 pounds. He can throw the deep ball with ease, and has a pretty strong grasp of his offense.
Webb has also had a hand at the Sun Devils defense before. In 2013, he tossed four touchdowns and threw for 403 yards during Texas Tech's 37-23 win in the Holiday Bowl. Then, he had Jakeem Grant to throw to; Saturday, he'll be tossing it to Chad Hansen.
Hansen stands at 6-foot-3, has blazing speed, is fantastic in the air, and is utilized in a couple of ways, most notably as a deep threat.
He enters the week leading the nation in receptions (40), receiving yards (546) and receiving touchdowns (5).
A majority of the Cal's passing game is predicated on attacking the boundary, unless incorporating all-curls combinations or hitting a running back on a swing route out of the backfield.
They use multiple formations, intended to keep defenses spread out. Dykes and offensive coordinator Jason Spavital work to keep defenses off by showing off tendencies early, before breaking away from it in pursuit of a home-run play.
For example, against Texas, Cal began the game utilizing a gamut of Tare route combos, then called a play where instead of running an in-breaking route, the slot receiver cut back and ran to the corner, as Webb hit him for a score.
The passing game's focus is centered around throwing the ball downfield, making use of Webb's ability to hang in the pocket and launch the ball deep. The screen game is also important, both in the backfield and on the outside through the use of smoke screens. It helps open up the deeper passing game via screen action, which means ASU must be aware of free wheel routes along the boundary.
Cal also has a trio of talented running backs: Khalfani Muhammad poses as a speed threat; Vic Enwere is a strong power back; Tre Watson is a balanced blend of the two.
The Golden Bears' running game is set up through the run-pass option, incorporating a mix of inside-zone and power rushes. The offensive line isn't the biggest, but has done enough to provide a strong complement to the passing game.
Where ASU needs to be careful
SDSU's defense appeared to mostly operate out of Cover-1 Man when it faced Cal. In the example above, the Golden Bears had been running plays with route combos crossing the middle of the field. So when the single-high safety saw the slot receiver starting to break inside, he stepped up to take the route away, but as he did, the receiver on the outside blew by his man and was left alone.
The result was six points.
Similarly, Texas, often showed off a Cover-3 shell with one single-high safety. The lone safety stepped up to take away the deep in-breaking route, but the slot broke back towards the corner. The corner guarding the third of the field the receiver cut back into was occupied by an outside receiver who ran an overlapping route towards the middle. The corner was unable to get back to the receiver running the corner route in time.
The ASU secondary needs to communicate in order to prevent the big play downfield from occurring, particularly in the event the defense decides to be conservative against the Cal offense. Also, the Sun Devils need to generate some sort of pressure on Webb to coerce him into making a mistake.
Webb's fatal flaw is his ability to beat himself, assuming he has something when it's not there.
Where ASU has the advantage
I wouldn't say there's much here. ASU's front-four has the ability to stifle the run, and generate good interior pressure. Webb is at his best while sitting in the pocket, although does have the ability to step out and make a throw on the run.
Upsetting his timing via interior pressure could make a big difference in this one.
The Golden Bears defense is not good at tackling at space, and I'm sure it would accumulate more missed tackles than the Sun Devils' group.
Against the run, Cal's defense has been rather weak. ASU won't have the weight along the offensive front Texas had, but its offensive line should still be able to push the Golden Bears along.
In the passing game, the Golden Bears' unit lines up in a base 4-3 set, primarily working out of a Cover-1 man look, such as the one below.
Against Hawaii, the outside corners played a mix of press and off-man. Versus Texas, they were more willing to play in an off-man set.
The Sun Devils have faced programs who have implemented both coverage looks outside, however it could be assumed the Golden Bears incorporate a press look. Preventing the ASU receivers from getting open in space forces the passing game to work vertically.
Where ASU needs to be careful
In the passing game, ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins will need to make sure he doesn't get caught staring down his targets should the Cal defenders play in press-man. Cal safety Luke Rubenzer is a rangy defender who can make opposing quarterbacks pay for instances of tunnel vision down field.
Where ASU has the advantage
ASU has the weaponry both at tailback and receiver to launch a full assault on one of the worst tackling defenses in the country. Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard aren't the same size as Texas' Chris Warren III or D'Onta Foreman, but they're strong runners who can bust out big plays, if allowed to.
The duo, along with receivers Tim White and N'Keal Harry, will have the chance to extend plenty of explosive plays on Saturday.
Game Viewed: Hawaii (Full Game, 2016), San Diego State (Full Game, 2016), Texas (Full Game, 2016)