Cal defense vs. Arizona State offense
1. Stopping the run against Arizona State will be a bigger priority than against Arizona.
Arizona State seems to be primarily a zone blocking team. Good defenses take advantage of Cal's zone blocking by bursting at the snap, using combined size and athleticism to swallow up the line of scrimmage and give the inside run game no chance to develop. The Cal front seven should be ready to do the same.
Athletically, Deantre Lewis is a better tailback than either Keola Antolin or Nic Grigbsy. He has a really strong motor and bursts through the seams as well as any tailback can do on draw plays (Steven Threet and Arizona State ares almost exclusively playing in shotgun formation). At 7.37 rushing yards per carry, one could argue he doesn't see the ball enough, or that Arizona State doesn't use that draw play enough to take advantage of defenses playing the passing lanes.
If the defensive line struggles to gain penetration (or at best holds even) with ASU's front five, Mike Mohamed and D.J. Holt have to be ready to plug up the gaps the Arizona State offensive linemen create up front. Remember that Arizona's key scoring drive involved two big draw plays to take advantage of Cal playing the passing lanes or biting too far inside.
2. Cornerbacks needs to execute one-on-one assignments
Cal has to play close up on their receivers like against Arizona. There should be no mismatches with the ASU receivers like there were against USC. Darian Hagan and Marc Anthony should be able to handle their assignments one-on-one while the safeties decide who to target on the play. Hit them hard and hit them up.
It'll be exciting to see Steve Williams get his opportunity--although Bryant Nnabuife might see a lot of nickelback action, when Arizona State goes four wide he should be able to make his mark. HydroTech mentioned he was a bright spot in the USC game, and it'll be nice to see more young blood injected into a program in transition from one defensive era to the next.
3. Force Threet to make mistakes
Threet's a pretty good vertical passer, but only in the purest sense of the word. His ball gets extremely wobbly if he throws anything beyond 10 to 15 yards. This gives safeties ample opportunities to target his throws. And even at closer range he still throws some ducks at close range which linebackers can prey on. I'd play a lot of zone against Threet, read his eyes, wait for him to make mistakes and then pounce. He's not going to beat Cal with his deep ball.
4. Rinse and repeat what we did against Arizona. Threet isn't as good as Nick Foles, nor are the Arizona State receivers up to par with Arizona's, but this is a team that's going to do almost exactly what Arizona does and execute it fairly well. I reviewed some of the gametape against Wisconsin, and there are a couple of wrinkles.
a) Occasionally ASU will have two running backs in the backfield with Threet; they'll send in one motion toward one side of the field as if to feint toward a screen pass. This'll force a linebacker or cornerback to commit to him, opening up opportunities elsewhere. If no one commits, Threet will throw the swing pass and the receivers in front of the in-motion tailback will block.
b) Noel Mazzone is pretty creative with his schemes while keeping the execution simple. He'll feint toward screen plays and try to make overaggressive defenders bite, opening up opportunities for downfield recievers. He'll have Threet play-fake a lot to try and get the defense chasing one way and open up holes in other areas (like faking a screen, then handing off to the tailback; or faking a handoff from the pistol formation, then rolling out on a bootleg). A lot of unique wrinkles that make the Arizona State offense almost the madcap version of the Airraid of the two schools.
Basically, discipline is the name of the game here--don't let one man go, and if you do, make sure someone else is behind you to pick him up. Like almost every week. I'm starting to feel like Mr. Miyagi.
Cal offense vs. Arizona State defense
1. Beat them in the air.
Two years ago in Strawberry Canyon, Cal put freshman Shane Vereen in his first start. He generated only a modest 79 yards as Arizona State forced Cal to pass on them to beat them. Nate Longshore obliged with a modestly efficient 61% completion rate, 7.1 yards per attempt and three touchdowns. Last year in Tempe, the Bears generated a mere 57 yards on the ground as Arizona State went all out to stop Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen in their tracks. Kevin Riley had arguably one of his greatest performances as a Golden Bear, passing for 350 yards, two touchdowns and a 60% completion rate.
The formula will undoubtedly remain the same on Saturday. Vereen and Isi Sofele will be the main targets of the ASU front seven and force Riley and the unimpressive Golden Bear vertical passing game. If they don't make things happen downfield, it could be tough slogging for Cal to generate anything offensively.
2. Offensive line needs to step up
Or something. The fears of these guys being undersized appears to have been justified. Because there doesn't seem to be an emphasis on technique in Coach Marshall's unit, the overall execution of the line has been shoddy and sometimes downright disastrous. Other than maybe Mitchell Schwartz, none of them are ready to be physically imposing. Unlike quarterback play, there doesn't seem to be any significant jump between this season and last.
It has been suggested that we start trotting out the new faces. Brian Schwenke, Matt Summers-Gavin and Dominic Galas look like a step in the right direction, but these guys are still a year away from being the forces on the line we want them to be. So the short answer is I have no answer. Arizona State's front seven isn't as monstrous a beast to conquer as it was last season, so the offensive line should be able to play better.
Then again, I said the same thing about USC...
3. Blitz pickups
Arizona State likes to blitz on defense. Thankfully, last season they performed admirably under fire in the desert. Backup senior guard Richard Fisher did an excellent job on last year's game-winning drive. He picked up the blitzing linebacker on a couple of occasions, ensuring Riley had enough time to get the ball out and deliver it with confidence.
4. Tight end play needs to pick up
Anthony Miller was a pleasant surprise last season; he has pretty much disappeared from the passing attack. Spencer Ladner definitely has great athleticism, but he keeps on dropping the ball from his mitts. Jarrett Sparks had to play for much of the second half at the Coliseum just to provide some sort of receiving threat in the middle. I can't even believe I'm saying this, but the injury of Jacob Wark might have been the toughest loss from fall camp. He was supposedly catching everything.
Jeff Tedford's offense has thrived off of creative use of the tight ends. There has been none of that this season, which has allowed the linebackers to sag off the middle and aim in on Vereen looping out of the backfield or Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen coming down the middle or along the seams. They need to get incorporated back into the offense, soon.
All signs pointing to this being a fairly close game. Arizona State has won or lost every one of their four first FBS games by 1, 11, 3, and 10. This is a team that does enough on defense and offense, but does seem to have a tendency to play to the level of their competition. So they could be extremely sloppy and haphazard on Saturday.
I really wish I could say I'm confident about this game. But from this point on, almost every game except Wazzu is a virtual tossup. Two-Face can flip the coin, because we're pretty much getting Good Cal and Bad Cal on a 50:50 basis. Based on what happened last week, Good Cal should be returning this week. Which means Bad Cal takes its turn the week after that...and you could see that pattern repeating itself for the rest of the season.
I thought Cal could be a decent team in indecent times. I hope they don't prove me wrong the rest of the way.