It is time to move on. As a Cal alumni, losing to Stanfurd was frustrating, but it is Wednesday and we still have 2 games left in the season. These final games will dictate how we remember the season, there is a lot to cheer for and a lot to play for. The last of our Pac-12 opponents, Arizona State, visits Memorial Stadium this Saturday.
[Note about the GIFs below: I don't know why, but the Gifs are displaying with a large empty space below each one, please scroll after each to continue reading. I apologize for the way it is displaying.]
ASU had high expectations for themselves after a 10 win season last year but after a slow start to the season they just reached bowl eligibility last weekend with a win over Arizona for the Territorial Cup. Back in September head coach Todd Graham had not yet seen the reality of his season:
"This is the best team we’ve had overall," Graham insisted. "We’re just not playing that way."
Through their first four games ASU was scoring just 15.5 points a game and not more than 21 points in any single game. The leaders of the 2014 Sun Devils' offense were QB Taylor Kelly (ran out of eligibility), WR Jaelen Strong (left for the NFL) and RB DJ Foster. Foster, a dual threat in the run game and the passing game, was moved to Wide Receiver to make room in the back field for two freshmen and the dream of playing Wide Out in the NFL. The result was that Foster's game impact dropped off to almost nothing as he learned the new position and his touches were more limited.
The switch flipped for the ASU offense after those early games, in the 7 games they have played since they are averaging 35 points a game. It took a while for the new offensive leaders of this team to emerge: Seniors Mike Bercovici (QB) and Devin Lucien (WR), and sophomore running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Where is DJ Foster? He still lines up at Wide Receiver and is the 3rd string running back. He will get his touches but is not the offensive focal point he was in 2014.
The focal point of the ASU offense in 2015 is the running game, specifically running back #4 Demario Richard who is on a pace to break 1000 yards in 11 games this year. Richard has good vision and the cutting ability and speed with which to use that vision:
At 5-10 and 220 pounds he is also able to run with power:
Richard left the game last week with an injury and did not return, I don't know if he will be playing against Cal on Saturday but that does not mean we can breath a sigh of relief. Backup running back #9 Kalen Ballage is 6-3, 230 pounds and averages 5.5 yards per carry (compared to Richards' 5.6 YPC).
Mike Bercovici has grown in his first full year as the starting quarterback. He has already thrown for 3000 yards this season, 315 of which came against the Arizona Wildcats. Bercovici has two favorite targets: #8 DJ Foster (51 receptions) and #15 Devin Lucien (49 receptions). Foster will line up at wide receiver but he is also a receiving threat out of the back field. On this play you will notice that the three receivers at the bottom of the screen run deep routes to clear a space for Foster as he releases from the back field.
"It's a lot of preparation that goes into it, a lot of things we saw on film," Bercovici said. "It's something we were excited about going into [the Arizona] game. We have some serious deep threats."
The Sun Devil passing game uses the effective running game to get favorable match ups. In his only year with the Sun Devils, Devin Lucien established himself as the deep threat of this team.
"It’s just amazing," said Lucien, a graduate transfer from UCLA. "I was able to do some good things at UCLA in the rivalry too – I scored against USC last year – but nothing’s ever going to compare to winning an MVP the first time being in one of the oldest rivalries ever in NCAA football. It’s just an amazing feeling."
Lucien said ASU thought it could exploit UA for playing their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. "Most teams in the Pac-12, knowing how fast the Pac-12 is, usually use two high safeties to keep over-the-top stuff from happening. With that, it was harder to complete those longer balls. UA has a lot of trust in their corner speed and brought their safeties down. We saw that as an opportunity to finally go over the top, and it was able to click."
Lets take a closer look at how ASU exploited the lack of an Arizona high safety. This screen capture is taken a few moments after the snap during the play action fake. Lucien is at the top of the screen, just releasing from the line of scrimmage. Arizona is in man coverage with a single safety. The man to man coverage assignments are in orange.
The safety has already taken several steps forward on the fake hand off and because he lined up shallow, he has no chance to get deep to help his corner with Devin Lucien:
Here is another example where ASU was able to burn the Arizona coverage because the safety was unable to get sufficient depth to assist his defensive backs in man coverage.
There was absolutely no pressure on Mike Bercovici on either deep passing play. The Cal defensive line needs to be generating pressure or the Golden Bears will also be susceptible to the deep ball.
The spread offense run by Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell uses many quick passes to the wide receiver, similar to what we see in the Bear Raid. Arizona was ready for these plays and did a great job stopping them early:
The outside Arizona defensive back immediately charges into the back field when he recognizes the quick pass and thereby is able to disrupt the wide receiver block and make the tackle. The next play is even more impressive...
ASU has 2 wide outs and 2 tight ends with a running back. Arizona is showing blitz from the bottom of the screen.
Bercovici looks directly at his wide receiver and calls an audible... The defensive back is playing 10 yards off and you should always throw to the area where the blitz is coming from... Right?
Once again the defensive back charges into the backfield, this time for an easy pick 6.
After this ASU makes an interesting adjustment to get their shallow passing game to work. This time they send the running back in motion before the snap. Once the defensive back recognizes this as a short pass, he once again charges, but the running back is in position to make a block on the DB allowing the receiver to gain some yards after the catch.
The Sun Devil defensive philosophy has not changed, it is still a blitzing, gambling defense.
Much like the 3-3-5 stack defenses of Grambling, San Diego State and Texas that Cal faced earlier in the year, we can expect blitzing on nearly every play. The key will be to take advantage of the weaknesses those blitzes open up in the defense. Jared Goff should be able to pick those opening apart like this:
Do the Sun Devils steal their opponents' offensive play calling signs?
"Do we steal signals? Yeah, we do," Graham said, via AZCentral's Doug Haller. "Do people steal our signals? Yeah, [they] do."
Tony Franklin and Sonny Dykes better change up their play calls or employ the curtains that Oregon and UCLA used to conceal their play calls. Actually, this presents an opportunity: early in the game use a sign that has been used in previous games to signal something like a run and actually run the ball. Later in the game signal in the same play but verbally tell the players before the drive that it is a trick sign and run a play action pass instead. We know the Scum Devil coaching staff is watching, use that against them.
Cal and ASU are remarkable in how evenly matched they look. Both have lost to Utah, Oregon and USC. Both beat Washington, Cal of course beat WSU while ASU beat UCLA. This last Pac-12 match-up of they year will set one school on a positive post/off-season trajectory while the other will start facing questions about the future. The outcome of the game will also have a bearing on where each team will go bowling.