Kickoff: Saturday, September 23 - 7:00 p.m. PT/10:00 p.m. ET
Television: ESPN2 (Mike Patrick, Ed Cunningham, and Dr. Jerry Punch)
Radio: ESPN Phoenix 620/TuneIn App (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, and Derek Hagan)
What ASU is Wearing: Going with the Maroon Monsoon theme for its Pac-12 opener, the Arizona State is sporting maroon from head to toe, a look that dates back to the Nike days. Adidas fitted ASU with the large pitchfork and numbers on the helmets for last year's edition of the game, but the Sun Devils are going back to the regular-sized pitchfork for this Saturday's game.
Series History: California leads 17-15. Arizona State's last period of dominance over the Golden Bears came under Bruce Snyder in the 1990's, but under Jeff Tedford's watch the Bears from Berkeley ran off eight wins in ten games against the Sun Devils from 2002-12. After missing each other on the schedule for a pair of seasons, Sonny Dykes beat ASU in his first try in the final regular season game of 2015, winning 48-46.
California in 2016: Adjusting to life without Jared Goff, the Golden Bears have enjoyed the luxury of not having to break in a quarterback who's completely new to playing at the college level. Senior transfer Davis Webb has lit up each defense he's faced and is on an initial pace to break 5,000 yards on the season, but the Bears have been abysmal defending the run and has put Cal in compromising positions against teams that won't match up with the caliber of the schools they'll be facing over the course of the conference season. Sitting at 2-1, losing a shootout to San Diego after allowing 281 yards to Donnel Pumphrey and beating Texas 50-43 while allowing two 100+ yard rushers for the Longhorns.
ASU on Offense: The Sun Devils did just enough to fly out of San Antonio as winners over UTSA, but the hangover from putting up 68 on Texas Tech was real. The ground game that carved out 137 yards and eight touchdowns for Kalen Ballage to go with Demario Richard's 109 yards and against the Red Raiders only amassed 157 between the two against UTSA. Careless play from the Sun Devils on special teams gifted the Roadrunners two separate scoring opportunities, both of which they took advantage of.
"It’s a long time since I’ve been minus-3 and been successful in a game," Graham said. "So we overcame some adversity, but we really need to take care of the football. Going into (California), it’s going to be vital, the turnover ratio."
With the ground game struggling and the passing game missing the dynamic athleticism of Tim White, freshman receiver N'Keal Harry continued to perform at an absurd level for a true freshman, catching five balls for 78 yards and a one-handed touchdown that gave the Sun Devils a much-needed score to end the first half. Cam Smith - whose junior season has stuttered out of the gates, pulled in three balls for 88 yards against the Roadrunners.
"He’s really doing a good job for us," said Harry. "He’s continuing to get better. I think he’s staying very humble and very hungry. And obviously, he’s a very gifted young man. I think coach (Jay) Norvell is doing a great job in developing him. He’s definitely a threat for us. And a guy that’s not only getting it done catching the ball, but he’s doing a great job blocking, he’s learning and he’s getting better at everything he’s doing. He’s a guy that is definitely a playmaker for us."
Center Zach Robertson, who missed the last two games with injury, is expected to return and fill out an offensive line that has protected Wilkins well through the early portion of the season. Arizona State also expects White back healthy, and his return should open things up immensely for the Sun Devils.
WR Jalen Harvey: Saturday night is expected to be a high-scoring affair, and if it is the Sun Devils will need all the reinforcements they need to outpace California and the electric Air Raid offense. Way back when Manny Wilkins was a four-star recruit, he played a notable role in convincing fellow four-star prospect Harvey to switch his commitment away from Sonny Dykes' California Bears and come to Tempe. He caught his first career touchdown last year against Arizona but with only four catches for 39 yards so far this season, will be chomping at the bit to make an impact Saturday.
QB Manny Wilkins: As Wilkins goes, the Sun Devils will go. He sparkled against Texas Tech, but his completion percentage dipped below 50% and he was picked off once against UTSA. In a game that could get out of hand if one team is turnover-prone and the other capitalizes, taking care of the ball against Cal is of the utmost importance. But if Wilkins is on his game like he was a couple weeks ago in Sun Devil Stadium, it's going to be a long night for the Golden Bear defense.
ASU on Defense: It's still not sunshine and rainbows for the Sun Devil defense, but they shut out UTSA in the fourth quarter that enabled the offense's eventual comeback. But the final score doesn't tell the entire story for the Sun Devils, as the defense missed 22 tackles against the Roadrunners.
"We’ve gotta get better fundamentally," Graham said. "We’ve gotta get better at tackling, especially in space. A lot of that is controlling our energy and just really working on our fundamentals. Our tracking kind of stuff."
Arizona State welcomes back Salamo Fiso and George Lea for the tilt against the Golden Bears, but may be without Christian Sam as he walked during stretches in Thursday's practice and appears doubtful for Saturday. The standouts on the defense through the first three weeks of the season are defensive linemen Tashon Smallwood and Viliami Latu,
Key Players and Units
Joseph Wicker: After opening eyes during his true freshman season, Wicker's sophomore year has been tempered by Smallwood and Latu's surge and the pass-happy nature of Arizona State's opponents. But Wicker might have the brightest future of all of the Maroon and Gold's defensive linemen, and when he's on his game he's a forced to be reckoned with. Strong enough to create pressure and fast enough to chase down Davis Webb and finish off sacks, Wicker is in position to make a difference-making impact against California.
The No Fly Zone: If Wicker and the defensive line do their job and stifle California's running game, the secondary's going to be bombarded with a flurry of Webb passes. Their bread and butter is the vertical passing game though, and Arizona State isn't going to chock up a ton of points without the Golden Bears doing their best to keep up with them. But in their loss to San Diego State and their narrow win over Texas, Webb threw five interceptions. If ASU's defensive backs can withstand the barrage and take advantage of the occasional opportunities he'll give them for turnovers, the Sun Devils can take control of the game.
ASU 56, California 52