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Know the Enemy: Previewing the Arizona State Offense

A very special Thanksgiving edition of Know Your Enemy

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

This is it. On a holiday weekend that celebrates family and gluttony, Cal looks to make assurances double sure against Arizona State. The win against Grambling State ended up counting toward the six win total even with scholarship issues, so Cal is no longer fighting for the postseason game that has eluded them since a trip to the Holiday Bowl in 2011. This game is still meaningful though, with a chance to go to a Pac-12 affiliated bowl instead of the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. When the Devils come down to Berkeley on Saturday, Cal needs to play the role of Johnny, play that metaphorical fiddle, and finish out the season with a big win against ASU, just like in 2011. That starts with holding the Arizona State offense down. And like Ringo and George once sang, "You know it don't come easy."

The defense has been the main focus for Cal fans this week due to their heavy blitzing style and opportunistic defensive backs. That being said, the offense can be very explosive, as they put up 38 of the 52 points scored against Arizona in the Territorial Cup.

Personnel

Mike Bercovici will be leading the Sun Devil offense. Bercovici officially has the reigns in the ASU offense, after getting an opportunity last year after Taylor Kelly got injured. Bercovici started out slow, but he's come into his own as the year's gone on. Here are his relevant passing stats:

  • 3047 yards passing, 60.2% completion
  • 6.97 yards per attempt, 131.3 QB rating
  • 22 Touchdowns, 9 interceptions

Completion percentage wise, Bercovici isn't as accurate as a lot of the quarterbacks in the Pac-12, but he's got the sort of Brett Favre gunslinger type vibe that emanates from him. He can make the deep throws, and can execute in the ASU offense pretty darn well. He's not really a runner, and has been sacked 33 times so far this season (Goff is at 25 for reference), but he can break out on read options for big gains.

Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are the running backs for ASU. These guys are the reason DJ Foster made the move to wide receiver in the offseason. Both guys are bigger for a back, at 220 and 230 respectively, and they average almost identical yards per carry numbers, with 5.6 and 5.5 respectively. In ASU's system, there's a lot of read option plays that send them up the middle, where they're very solid. Imagine two Vic Enwere's, without Vic's Marshawn impression.

Devin Lucien and Tim White are the two leading receivers yardage-wise. Lucien, a UCLA graduate transfer, hhas emerged as the leader in the Sun Devil receiving core. He has become a deep threat, or at least a sure set of hands after the departure of Jaelen Strong. White is the slot guy who can make all the catches. He's in the mold of a River Cracraft, and will probably be an oft announced name come Saturday.

DJ Foster, the former running back, moved to receiver to try to realize an NFL dream at the position. While that plan didn't quite make it to fruition, and he moved back to running back for a bit, Foster still leads the team in receptions. He's the multi-tool of the offense, and the decision to put him out at receiver was definitely made to get him out in a space. Expect screens and swings to go to him. As well as wheel routes, I can guarantee one wheel route

Kody Kohl, whose middle name hopefully doesn't start with a K, is the big tight end for the Devils. He's a solid receiver, but he's very good as a blocker on screens. We'll get to that in a moment.

Scheme:

Arizona State runs a number of things. To call it a cookie cutter spread offense doesn't exactly do it justice, but it does have a lot in common with other offenses in the Pac-12. Let's start with the basic read option, which should give you plenty of reason to fear Demario Richard.

This is your run of the mill read option play. Bercovici reads the unblocked defensive end, gives it to Richard, and he pinballs in for a score. What's different about this is how long Berco holds the ball before letting Richard take it. It allows for the play to develop just that much longer so he can be sure in his read. This requires good timing with his back to make sure they don't fumble, so kudos to them. Bercovici can and will take it on these, and he will rumble when given the space.

In short yardage situations, they'll sometimes run a speed option. It's usually a quick hitter with the quarterback when you don't want to run a QB draw and risk a massive hit or fumble from going over the top. The speed option allows for a fake that can draw the defense in and a cutback that'll usually result in the needed few yards.

Bercovici runs it well here, stringing the play out until he can cut back and score. I like how Bercovici does the little things like this. That being said, I will hate him come Saturday afternoon.

Here's a little piece lifted from the USC playbook, with the fake end around motion. This play was either used as a run early in the game, or was on film already, because Arizona bit hard on it. The deep safety breaks the first rule of being a safety and let's a man past him. That man is Devin Lucien.

Lucien ends up wide open, gets the ball on a perfect line, and waltzes into the end zone. Preparation for a play on tape can kill your defense when they forget how to react in the moment.

The last play I want to look at is when keeping it real goes wrong. Or when a screen pass isn't used well, same thing really.

Anyway, ASU has one on one coverage, so there's going to be a quick screen that can gain a few yards. That's all good, but the screen is telegraphed and not thrown hard enough, and the UA corner jumps it and has an easy pick six. ASU will run more screens than this, usually with blockers. Kohl will be a tough blocker to get by in those situations because of this.

Anyway, ASU's offense is robust. While neither of their running backs are Christian McCaffrey, they both pose the same problem. They're big and often don't go down with the first hit. Corralling them is mission number one. If Cal can do that, then we may be seeing a 7th win. That being said, have a happy Thanksgiving and Go Bears!