Happy Thanksgiving, all. Hope everyone enjoys a nice day. I'll keep this post a bit more brief than I typically do. Chances are most of you won't notice between all the tryptophan and booze in your systems (and mine!). Tough loss against the Furd last weekend, but I actually found it easier to swallow than most of our other defeats this season. While there were certainly some mistakes and missed opportunities on both sides of the ball, they generally weren't of the catastrophic and jaw-dropping variety that really gets me down (see USC and UCLA games). We also managed to stay close and competitive, on the road (kinda), against a generally better team. Positives to take away, for sure.
Quicker turnaround than usual for the team this week, as they'll be taking on the
San Fernando Valley Junior College Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe on Friday night. After starting the season at a very promising 5-1, ASU is in a tough spot right now. They've lost their last three against what can be considered the dregs of their schedule (@ UCLA, @ WSU, home vs Arizona), and that has resulted in a fair amount of clamoring for coach Dennis Erickson's head. Hmm...a team that got beat by a poor Arizona team the week before, now hosting us? And they want to fire their coach? I've heard this story before. The ending sucks.
The Sun Devils possess a pretty explosive offense, led by 6'8 junior quarterback
Karch Kiraly Brock Osweiler. They are loaded with athletes and boast the 11th ranked passing offense in the country. They also are in position to claim the PAC-12 South title with a win a UCLA loss. ASU isn't without it's issues, however. And I'm not just talking about venereal diseases. Are they in the process of quitting on Erickson? I hope so, if for no other reason than I think ASU should fire him and let Vontaze Burfict assume the role of Player/Coach for ASU's bowl game...just to see what happens.
Despite our loss last week, we seemingly have built up a little momentum to close out the regular season. Beating ASU in Tempe is a very tall order though. Is our defense up to the task of shutting down this offense? Will the future
pornstars actresses in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium be screaming for their coach, or for his head? Put down that plate for a minute and read on.
2011 record: 6-5
Week 1: WIN vs UC Davis (48-14)
Week 2: WIN vs Missouri (37-30)
Week 3: LOSS @ Illinois (14-17)
Week 4: WIN vs USC (43-22)
Week 5: WIN vs Oregon St (35-20)
Week 6: WIN @ Utah (35-14)
Week 7: LOSS @ Oregon (27-41)
Week 8: WIN vs Colorado (48-14)
Week 9: LOSS @ UCLA (28-29)
Week 10: LOSS @ Washington St (27-37)
Week 11: LOSS vs Arizona (27-31)
Last Season: 6-6 (LOSS @ Cal 17-50)
2011 Offensive Stats:
Passing: 314.4 yards/game (11th)
Rushing: 134.2 yards/game (81st)
Scoring: 33.5 points/game (26th)
STARTER- Brock Osweiler, Junior - 6'8, 240 lbs
Osweiler took the reigns as starting QB this year from Steven Threatt, who was forced to retire due to too many concussions. Thanks Arizona State offensive line! He had previously appeared in six games as a true freshman in 2009 and six more last year, including one start in a win over Arizona to conclude the 2010 season. He's 6'8, and actually turned down a basketball scholarship from Gonzaga to play football at Arizona State. He's the tallest quarterback in the FBS! He's had a very good year in a pass-happy spread offense...throwing for 3377 yards, 21 TDs and 10 INTs on 63.4% passing. And that comes on an average of almost 40 attempts per game, skewed slightly by the fact that Osweiler threw the ball SIXTY FIVE TIMES last week against Arizona. Still, he averages over 300 yards a game through the air. He's got good enough feet too, running for a sack-impacted 118 yards and 3 more TDs on the season. He's a very good player with a big arm.
Upside: Size, arm strength, mobility
Downside: Education, sweet tattoos bro
What to expect:
Win or lose, Osweiler will be throwing and racking up yards. Unfortunately, he's better than the other QBs we've faced who do the same thing (Lobbestael and Mannion, namely). Prior to last week's game, he hadn't thrown an interception (or two) since a week 7 loss to the Ducks. He can be streaky, so the best thing we can do is make him uncomfortable. This will be another game where we could use Chris McCain and Dave Wilkerson. As of me writing this (or actually updating this late Wednesday), Wilkerson is getting back but McCain has not practiced. Whiteside and Wilk could be key this week. We also have a fairly competent running game to deal with, which means we may not be able to get away with our favored 2-5 front. Still, the ASU offensive line seems to be the weakness of this offense. If we can beat them and get to Osweiler, his accuracy and timing should suffer and lead to potential turnovers. But he's a quality quarterback. Don't be surprised if he torches us. Go fork yourself, Brock.
STARTER- Cameron Marshall, Junior - 5'11, 215 lbs
Marshall is leading the conference in rushing touchdowns with 16. That's more than 7 other PAC-12 teams! And no, Cal is not one of those teams. He's run for 881 yards at a 4.49 average yard per carry on the season. His performances have been pretty up and down, but he's still managed to get in the endzone at least once in all but two games. He went for 100+ yards against USC, Colorado and UCLA, and struggled most notably against Missouri, Utah, Wazzu and Arizona. Marshall is a good back who has been victimized by inconsistent offense line play. He has the speed to break big runs and the strength to shed tackles if given the chance to get to the second level of a defense. He's also got 22 catches for 187 yards on the year. Not surprising considering how much ASU throws the ball. He's a good one to get into space. Depth is an issue for ASU though. Junior Jamal Miles (26 carries for 201 yards) has primarily seen time at WR (more on him later), and sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks has been a bit of a non-factor (40 carries for 138 yards). The Sun Devils' depth was further hampered when sophomore Deantre Lewis got shot in the ass back in February. He's missed the entire season as he recovers. That's been a factor as Marshall has been a little slowed by a bum ankle in the last couple weeks. Whether or not that factors on Friday remains to be seen.
Upside: Size, athleticism
Downside: Depth, lack of intact buttcheeks, education
What to expect:
I have some concerns here simply because ASU will spread our defense out. That will make running a bit easier for Marshall, and he's a pretty good running back...banged up or not. Unlike Wazzu and Oregon State, he can make us pay for not respecting the run. Sadly for us, ASU is not as one-dimensional as those teams were. The question remains though...can his offensive line generate a significant enough push to create holes? I'm pretty confident in our front seven's ability to nullify the line, and as a result...Marshall. Against comparable run defenses, ASU has not had success. While it could happen, I don't think Marshall will be the guy that beats us on Friday OMGWTFDOOOOOMMM!!! It will still take a committed and strong effort to keep Marshall out of the endzone though. And at the end of the day, we'll need to shut down the running game to then focus on what I consider to be the larger threat from the ASU offense...the receivers.
Gerell Robinson, Senior - 6'4, 222 lbs
Aaron Pflugrad, Senior - 5'10, 182 lbs
Jamal Miles, Junior - 5-10, 180 lbs
Mike Willie, Senior- 6'4, 211 lbs
Good, experienced group here. Robinson is the statistical leader of this WR corps, catching 61 balls for 100 yards and 6 TDs on the season. That's an impressive 18 yard per catch average. He tallied a season high 11 catches for 199 yards and a TD last week in the loss against the Wildcats. He's a big, fast guy. Dangerous. Pflugrad (38 recs for 587 yards, 4 TDs) is the token white scrapper of the group. He started the season off strong, catching 18 balls and all four of his TDs in the first three games, but seems to have been less of a focus in the passing game the last few weeks. That seems to have coincided with the emergence of Robinson...who is averaging 7 receptions/game over the last 6 weeks. Willie (34 catches for 434 yards, 3 TDs) is a big guy in the same mold as Robinson. His best games came on the road against Utah (7 for 98, 2 TDs) and Oregon (5 for 79, 1 TD). He's been relatively quiet since. Jamal Miles (57 catches for 357 yards, 6 TDs) is a versatile speedster. He retuns kicks, runs with the ball, and is really utilized on short looks in the passing game. He is best used in space underneath with guys like Robinson and Willie stretching the defense and opening up the flats and the middle of the field. In an offense where the tight end is seldom utilized, Miles is Osweiler's safety valve. Keep your eyes open for Juco transfer and converted DB Rashad Ross too. He's another burner who tallied 4 catches for 77 yards last week. This is the best group on the Sun Devil offense, and they have a quarterback that does a good job getting him the ball.
Upside: Size, speed, athleticism
What to expect:
This is where we could easily get beat. While Robinson is the best of the bunch (and has the biggest mouth), Osweiler can spread the ball around and each of these guys demand attention. They are fast and athletic. They can get deep and score quickly. We'll need a great day from our secondary to hang with these receivers and minimize the damage they do. A pair of 6'4 wideouts will present some problems for Steve Williams, but he does have the speed to stay with them. We'll need solid play from the nickelback(s) and safeties too. I'm pretty confident in the coverage abilities of Josh Hill, Stefan McClure, and DJ Campbell. This is not the kind of offense that Sean Cattouse excels against though. He was great last week against a run-first, bunched up Stanford offense because he was free to fly up to the line in run support (even if he sometimes let a tight end run right by him). ASU will be a very different animal. He'll need to be disciplined and recognize where support is needed against this spread attack. And the secondary will need help from the front seven. If we aren't pressuring Osweiler and making him hurry his throws, these guys will eat us alive.
STARTER - Trevor Kohl, Senior - 6'1, 238 lbs
Kohl's got three catches on the year for 33 yards. ASU doesn't even use a tight end most of the time. Meh.
Upside: Seldom used
Downside: Seldom used, education
What to expect:
Nothing. Moving on.
LT: Evan Finkenberg, Sophomore - 6'6, 292 lbs
LG: Adam Tello, Senior - 6'3, 292 lbs
C: Garth Gerhart, Senior - 6'2, 302 lbs
RG: Andrew Sampson, Junior - 6'3, 296 lbs
RT: Dan Knapp, Senior - 6'5, 277 lbs
This is the group that has been a disappointment for the ASU offense, and at times has really hamstrung a team loaded with explosive offensive playmakers. Going into the season, the SunDevils were optimistic about this group. They returned their 8 most experienced linemen. They have been thinned by injuries and have not performed up to their expectations. Finkenberg is going to be good, but he's missed time due to a knee injury. Tello actually retired due to a back injury earlier this year, but then returned to the team after two weeks and beat out Mike Marcisz for the starting guard spot last week against Arizona. You could tell he was rusty in that game. Gerhart has been solid at center, and is the brother of former Stanford running back Toby...just in case anyone wanted a reason to dislike him. Sampson is another seasoned guy who just hasn't been able to generate a consistent push on the interior. Knapp converted to the line from tight end in 2010. He moves well, but is very light at 277 lbs. Maybe that's why he moves well. This group has struggled more in the run game than the passing game, and i wonder how much better Marshall has made them look than they really are. Ditto for Osweiler. He's big and mobile, so even though ASU has surrendered a respectable 23 sacks on the year, he's avoided many more on his own despite being pressured and hit frequently.
Downside: Size, consistency, blocking, education
What to expect:
This is where we have to dominate if we want to slow down this offense. The ASU spread passing game is all about timing and execution. A strong opposing pass rush can disrupt that timing and execution. Osweiler is pretty mobile, or else those sack numbers could look a lot worse. Just hurrying him and getting him out of a rhythm should help immensely. This is an undersized group, and they've struggled with bigger defensive lines. We have the personnel to clog running lanes and get these guys on their heels. Again, pay attention to the status of Mccain and Wilkerson this week. Looks bleak for McCain as of now, but Wilkerson will at least travel to Tempe. We'll see how much that factors in and how much we miss them if they are unable to go. Still, Cecil Whiteside should be a demon on the edge, and I expect Ernest Owusu and Trevor Guyton to be their usual disruptive selves on the line. They'll need to be, because if the ASU line has success creating holes for Marshall and giving Osweiler time to set up in the pocket, we're screwed. It will take a commitment to control the line of scrimmage and get to Osweiler for us to make this offense sputter, and possibly provide the killing stroke on Erickson's ASU tenure.
In spite of some questions about the offensive line, this is a very good offense. They can score very quickly, and have playmakers everywhere. They rack up a lot yards (448.5 per game), they don't turn the ball over much (17 total...10 interceptions and 7 lost fumbles), and they've only been held below 27 points once this year (14 in a week 3 loss @ Illinois). They've got a QB who can sling it, and big fast receivers to catch it...and then run with it! Their running back is fast and strong and has good nose for the endzone, even though he's dinged up. There is a chance they run us out of the stadium on Friday. In fact, I consider that far more likely than us beating them handily. Of course, there is also the chance that they've quit on their coach and are just going through the motions at this point. A season full of hype and expectations has crumbled around them, and they could be suffering from both a literal and figurative hangover after the loss to their instate rival the previous week and a rad holiday celebration with the bro's.
ASU needs this game to win their division. We don't. Their coach may need this game to save his job. Ours doesn't. All of the pressure is on them. How do they respond to that? How do we respond to no real pressure? I don't know. I do think we'd be far more likely to win this game if it were being played at AT&T. The fact that it will be in Tempe may be the difference. Until they crapped the bed last week against Arizona, ASU hadn't lost at home. Even if the holiday keeps a lot of fans away, it's still their house (and will easily have more people in attendance than our last two games in SF...good riddance to that).
I don't expect us to hold this offense below 24 points, so our offense will need to score more than that for us to have a chance to win. Can we do that? You'll want to check out Nick's preview of the ASU Burficts tomorrow to find out. In the meantime, let's hope that we can stay fat and happy on Friday night watching out Bears close out the regular season.
Again, Happy Thanksgiving y'all. Be thankful for Cal Football. And especially for your great Cal education. It's important to remember there are those less fortunate than us. They went to ASU.