Saturday night’s Pac-12 opener with the California Golden Bears is fast approaching and we’ve still got some questions about the state of the visitors from Berkeley.
Thankfully, our California sister site California Golden Blogs was gracious enough to help us out. Below, their staff talks expectations, holes in the Golden Bear defense, and much, much more.
House of Sparky: California improved from one win to five two years ago, and then from five to eight in 2015, but I don't think many saw a third straight year of improvement coming with the loss of seven starters on defense and No. 1 pick Jared Goff at quarterback. What were your expectations coming into the season, and have they changed after three solid performances to start the season (including a win against No. 11 Texas last week)?
LeonPowe: Even those of us who are still on the Sonny Dykes bandwagon - and the fanbase is pretty split here - haven’t really viewed this year as an improvement thus far. Not a whole lot of people saw Hawaii and San Diego State as solid performances. Even though we blew Hawaii out, allowing that much rushing and 31 points to a bottom quartile team was concerning - and then even more so against San Diego State.
I still have no idea what to think about this team. Before Texas, I saw our ceiling as five wins. Now, I don’t know, eight? Needless to say that game on Saturday has me way more optimistic than i was the previous week.
Nick Kranz: It's tough to overstate the importance of the Texas win. The hope for the season was a bowl appearance, and losing to San Diego State really seemed like a tough blow. By following up with a win over Texas, hope has been renewed that the Bears could put together another season like 2015 despite so much lost talent.
Having said all that, my goal is still a simple one: get to six wins and earn an extra few weeks of practice. This is a young team, and it's about building for 2016.
boomtho: The team has certainly exceeded my expectations, and I'm feeling much more optimistic about their trajectory after the Texas game. I still think we'll end up with fewer than eight wins because I unfortunately see six near certain losses: Utah, Oregon, USC, Washington, Stanford, and UCLA. The Pac-12 may be a bit down, but I'm a pessimist at heart.
HoS: What's the biggest difference between this Golden Bear team and the one we saw last year?
LeonPowe: The offense, even as good as it has looked, is not quite as good as it was last year. When you lose the No. 1 NFL draft pick at quarterback, plus six wideouts who are getting NFL paychecks right now - no matter how talented the replacements are, you're going to at least take a step back. Full credit to QB Davis Webb and WR Chad Hansen for stepping right in almost seamlessly.
The offensive line is better - just because we only lost one starter. We're still susceptible to being beat off the edges by speed rushes. We still have a trio of good backs - with Muhammad the home run guy, Enwere the bruiser, and Tre Watson the all arounder. Offense is in good hands.
On the other side of the ball, we lost a lot of depth to attrition: graduations, transfers and retirements sapped us of a lot of depth, especially at linebacker. I'm in the minority, but I don't think our defense has been as bad as advertised - and the volume of rushing yards we've given up in the first three games is ugly, no question about it. But we've shown some decent coverage from our defensive backfield. Arizona native (and former QB2) Luke Rubenzer has really shown a knack for being the right place, right time. I think he has three turnovers caused in three games. The safeties and corners have really held their own in coverage. On the defensive line, we're starting to see a little bit of chaos and havoc from our front four.
I really like what James Looney has been doing - there's some quarterback pressure that has directly forced some bad throws and picks. And then at linebacker. Well, we have two starters.
Yeah, about that. Run coverage. Everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong.
Bad angles, late tackles, tackling high, getting trucked, not wrapping up. Losing two regular starters to transfers and then another to retirement really has destroyed the depth here. Even if those players weren't world beaters, they knew the scheme and they could be reliably counted upon to make a tackle, even if it was three yards past where you would've liked.
Nick Kranz: What LP said - the biggest difference between 2015 and 2016 (other than no more Goff) is that Cal's run defense has collapsed. Cal is last in the nation, allowing 6.54 yards/run, after allowing a not-good-but-hardly-disastrous 4.83 over the course of last season.
Granted, San Diego State and Texas are two very good running teams . . . but Hawaii is not. It's going to be an issue all year long.
boomtho: I’ll call out two differences: defensive attrition and new offensive firepower.
On the defensive side of the ball, we lost a lot of talent and contributors. We graduated a ton of defensive linemen (Mustafa Jalil, Trevor Kelly, David Davis) and lost some linebackers to transfer (Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson). The newer-look defense is fighting really hard and will compete all game, but they’re still pretty inexperienced and are prone to mistakes.
On offense, Cal has certainly reloaded more than rebuilt. Davis Webb has been “manna from heaven” (to quote all-time bad general manager David Kahn) – head coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital worked the Texas connection to get him from Texas Tech, and he has greatly exceeded expectations. He’s got a 13:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, is putting up 450+ yards a game, and spreading the wealth beautifully.
Webb is surrounded by an experienced running back core, but a totally new group of wide receivers (Cal graduated its top five receivers to the NFL last year). The wideouts are led by Chad Hansen, who has totally exceeded expectations given he was on the roster last year, and are also driven by newcomers Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall.
HoS: Arizona State has 13 rushing touchdowns in three games and California has given up nearly 900 yards on the ground in their first three contests. What might the coaching staff do to slow down the Sun Devils rushing attack, or is it kind of a lost cause at this point?
LeonPowe: Some of the stuff - like attacking angles and reacting quicker - might be able to be coached up over the course of a season. Maybe getting some of the less experienced junior college and freshmen players into the rotation now might shore this up before the end of the season. Not sure anything can be done in a week's span though.
Nick Kranz: Leaning towards lost cause. Having said that - even the worst rush defenses will get a couple of stops on 1st down.
The real question is whether or not Arizona State has the fortitude to keep running the ball in 2nd & 8 or 3rd & 5 type of situations. Texas didn't, and they paid for it because Cal's pass defense has been comparatively decent.
boomtho: Let’s start with the bad: the Cal defense is undersized on the line and doesn’t really have a top-tier middle linebacker to plug the run game, so they’re starting from a disadvantaged position. However, the defense has done an admirable job (even if it feels somewhat unsustainable) of stiffening up near the red zone and late in games. After getting gashed on the ground by Texas in the first game, Cal held the Longhorns to 1 TD out of their last 9 possessions – that’s a remarkable turnaround that speaks to the defense’s fight.
HoS: How do most Golden Bear fans view Arizona State and how confident are they about Saturday's game?
LeonPowe: To be honest, a lot of the discussion about football has been internally. It's year four of Sonny Dykes and a significant portion of the fanbase feels that we hit our ceiling last season with eight wins and three years of no defense. Looking at other teams hasn't been top of mind for the fanbase.
I'd say two weeks ago when Kalen Ballage was scoring eight touchdowns, and we were losing to San Diego State, most of the fanbase marked this down as another loss, seeing how Christian McCaffrey carved us up last year. But then you guys barely beat UTSA and we beat Texas - I expect the confidence meter to swing wildly the other way.
Nick Kranz: I find that my opinion of Todd Graham swings wildly. I thought he was an awful hire at first, then he convinced me that I was wrong, then wasted all of that good will with last year's 6-6 disappointment. He reminds me of a pitcher who has a great fastball (his blitzing schemes) and a decent slider, but when he doesn't have control of that fastball he's a walking time bomb.
boomtho: I think most fans think this is a game that Cal has a good chance to win. Arizona State has not been super impressive (especially struggling against UTSA), so despite the offensive talent, Cal should have a good chance to compete in this game. Also, no one has really shown an ability to slow down the Bear Raid (yet) – here’s hoping that continues.
The Sun Devils were a great matchup for Jared Goff's skillset last year, but I'm not 100% convinced that Davis Webb will be just as well adapted to Arizona State’s strengths and weaknesses.
HoS: Do California fans typically travel well? How much blue and gold might we see at Sun Devil Stadium this weekend?
LeonPowe: We're a big state school with graduates that live everywhere. That being said, Tempe is probably too much of a road trip for the students and we're not a traditional football power that attracts a lot of fans who are not grads. We travel well to LA and to big OOC opponents, but I think to regular Pac-12 foes, I would say we're pretty average in terms of road trippers.
boomtho: I don’t think Cal travels particularly well, though I’d argue there really isn’t a Pac-12 fanbase that does. I wouldn’t expect a huge showing this Saturday.
HoS: Who do you most want to punch in the face and why?
LeonPowe: Aside from TwistNHook, because he's the standard answer, it's Jim Harbaugh for his continual booger denial efforts.
Nick Kranz: Any media-talking-head-type willing to endlessly praise Stanford for 'winning the right way.'
boomtho: Eh, I dunno, life is pretty good right now. Donald Trump is kind of a jerk…?
HoS: With two shaky defenses, this game figures to be just as drunk and #Pac12AfterDark-ish as last year's meeting in Berkeley. Give us a prediction.
LeonPowe: Cal, 2-0, on a safety.
Nick Kranz: Arizona State takes a late, 55-50 lead and kicks off to Cal with 28 seconds left on the clock for a touchback. For reasons that are entirely inexplicable, Todd Graham send a 9 man blitz on first down, allowing Cal to complete a 75 yard touchdown to an uncovered receiver for the game winning score.
boomtho: Cal 38, Arizona State 28. The Bear Raid is looking mighty scary and I’m even projecting a small improvement from the defense after the second half display they put on against Texas.