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Cal vs. Arizona State: Previewing the Sun Devil defense

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One team will reach seven wins. Who will it be?

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Despite a brief scare, the Golden Bears will be going bowling for the first time since 2011. Before that, though, they face one more conference opponent in Arizona State. The Sun Devils beat Arizona in the Territorial Cup, bringing their record to 6-5. Like Cal, they've beaten most of the teams they were expected to beat and lost to most of the teams ahead of them. That should give the Bears some confidence, as they're favored by a small margin.

This season has been something of a letdown for Todd Graham and the Sun Devils after winning 10 games each of the last two years. The defense especially has been disappointing, considering the number of returning starters from last season. Even so, the secondary put up a strong showing against Arizona, including two late pick-sixes to seal the game. Another strong effort by the pass defense would go a long way towards winning this game.

The Story so Far...

The Sun Devils defense was pretty much fully loaded coming into this season. Almost every defensive starter returned with the exceptions of DE Marcus Hardison and CB Damarious Randall. Todd Graham's fourth season at Arizona State should have been a chance to show off what he could do with a full roster of his players, but things got off to a rocky start with a loss to Texas A&M. The Sun Devil offense sputtered to 17 points while the defense surrendered 38 points and a pair of touchdowns from Kyle Allen.

ASU's conference opener was similarly disappointing. Cody Kessler went off for five touchdowns in USC's 42-14 drubbing. They bounced back against UCLA, snagging the road upset over the Bruins 38-23. QB Mike Bercovici played Josh Rosen to a statistical draw, while the Sun Devil defense controlled Paul Perkins and recorded two safeties.

Their next win, against Colorado, preceded a three-game losing streak. Devontae Booker put up two TDs in Utah's 34-17 win, Oregon's Vernon Adams had three overtimes to run up a 61-55 score, and Luke Falk had a five-touchdown performance for Washington State's 38-24 win.

The Sun Devils rebounded, picking off Jake Browning three times in a win over Washington. The Huskies outgained the Sun Devils by a large margin, but their four turnovers made the difference in the 27-17 game. Turnovers would again be the the difference against Arizona; two late pick-sixes by Kareem Orr and Lloyd Carrington sealed the 52-37 victory over the Wildcats.

Arizona State has allowed 30+ points six times, and is 2-4 in those games. They allow 32 points (90th in FBS) and 435 (92nd) yards per game on average. Here's the big one: the Sun Devils' rush defense is top 10 in the country, allowing 107 yards per game, while the pass defense is the worst in FBS football with 327 yards allowed.

Defensive Line

Starters: Sr #94 Demetrius Cherry, Jr #41 Viliami Latu, So #90 Tashon Smallwood, Fr #1 JoJo Wicker

ASU mostly runs a three-man front, with a linebacker often moving up in the rush end position (which they call the devil). JoJo Wicker, the true freshman, lines up on one end. He's started eight games in his freshman season, recording 6 TFL. Demetrius Cherry and Tashon Smallwood make up the rest of the line, rotating generously with Viliami Latu. This unit has struggled to create much pressure, ranking among the worst lines in the nation when it comes to creating havoc.

Linebackers

Starters: Sr #32 Antonio Longino, Jr #28 Laiu Moeakiola, Jr #58 Salamo Fiso, So #2 Christian Sam

What the DL lacks in disruptive capability, the linebackers compensate for and more. Led by defensive playcaller Salamo Fiso, this linebacking corps has the best havoc rate in the country for their position. Fiso leads the team with 18.5 TFL, and had five tackles against Arizona after missing the previous two games. Antonio Longino, who plays in the devil position, has had a breakout year with a team-leading 7.5 sacks. In addition to the starters, DJ Calhoun and Ismael Murphy-Richardson also share frequent LB duties.

Defensive Backs

Starters: Sr #8 Lloyd Carrington, Sr #38 Jordan Simone, So #13 Armand Perry OR Fr #25 Kareem Orr, Sr #10 Kweishi Brown

For all the experience this unit returned, the rising star of the secondary has to be freshman Kareem Orr. He shares the starting CB job with Armand Perry, but in his time on the field he's recorded a team-best five interceptions as well as a forced fumble. He ran back a pick six in the fourth quarter against Arizona, followed by Lloyd Carrington doing the same on the next drive. Senior safety Jordan Simone leads the team in tackles, and has snuck into the backfield for 9 TFL including four sacks. This unit has to answer for some abysmal pass defense statistics and a few 5-TD days by opposing QBs, but last week's performance has them going in the right direction.

Andrew's Take

These guys sure do give up a lot of points. Depending on your confidence level in the Cal offense, the Sun Devils' quiet defensive line and porous secondary might indicate some opportunities for Jared Goff and co. ASU's tendencies certainly seem to play to Cal's strengths in that way, but things could be rough for whatever combination of running backs Tony Franklin trots out.

I suspect Cal will be able to join the 30+ point club against this defense, but the ASU defense has been doing some work of its own in the second half of the season. My prediction? Whatever the outcome, Cal fans spend most of the game worrying about the basketball team.