The last time these two teams met was on a sunny, Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium in the fall of 2012. Keenan Allen was still scoring touchdowns for Cal and JEFF TEDFORD was still manning the Cal sidelines. How things have changed since then. Cal underwent a regime change and ASU has posted back-to-back 10 win seasons. After 2 years under Coach Sonny Dykes, Cal fans hope that our Golden Bears can take the next step and return to bowl game relevance. However, this potent, experienced ASU team will prove a stern test for our Golden Bears as they look to finish the season on a strong note.
Let's take a look at this year's Sun Devils.
Up-tempo. Efficient. Explosive. Unpredictable. Innovative. What do these 5 words have in common? They are all commonly used to describe the offense that offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has implemented at ASU. However, that last word may best describe this Sun Devils offense that employs a variety of approaches, as Norvell changes the offense to fit the strengths of his players. If the Sun Devils are able to find capable replacements for tackles Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka, we could see this year's offense surpass last season's average of 36.9 points per game. Without further ado, some important names to from this Sun Devils offense.
3-year starting quarterback graduates. Panic ensues. Not at ASU. They have redshirt senior Mike Bercovici ready to take the helm. Though Bercovici lacks extensive game experience, he has a mastery of the offensive playbook. ASU wide receivers have also noted his ability to spread the football all over the field. Furthermore, he enjoyed success in limited playing time last season, demonstrating a fearless attitude and a strong arm on his way to throwing for 1,445 yards. There are concerns, though. He threw 1 interception for every 3 touchdown passes, and only completed 62% of his passes. However, Norvell has noted improvement in his anticipation this spring. I expect Bercovici to thrive with all of the weapons at his disposal, allowing ASU to replicate the strong offensive showing of 2014.
With the loss of last year's leading wide receivers Jaelen Strong and Cameron Smith, ASU has a lot of production to replace. Luckily for them, they have a stable of talented running backs. Demario Richard, who averaged 5.7 yards per carry last year, Kalen Ballage, a 6-foot-3, 222 pound missile, and De'Chavon 'Gump' Hayes, a speedy JC transfer, will take over the load at running back, allowing last year's leading rusher D.J. Foster to line up at slot receiver, helping replace the production of Strong and Smith. They will also rely on a collective effort from the rest of their wide receivers who all provide different skill sets.
With the loss of safety Damarious Randall, who led the team in tackles, and defensive lineman Marcus Hardison, who led the team in sacks, one might expect this Sun Devils defense to regress. However, that does not look to be the case as they were the only two starters lost to graduation. This young defensive squad will look to build upon a strong showing during the 2014 season when they recorded 98 tackles for loss, 39 sacks and 27 takeaways. They utilize an aggressive, aggressive hybrid scheme that emphasizes attacking at all opportunities. This defense employs a Devilbacker, a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker in order to create a speed advantage that allows them to pressure the quarterback and force turnovers. This aggressive Sun Devils defense, if they continue to show improvement, will prove difficult to play against come game day.
The Sun Devils defense could not defend the pass, giving up 313.67 pass yards per game in the first three conference games. However, in the following three games we saw them allow only 136 yards through the air. Why did this happen? Well, we saw the same players established as starters, allowing the players to breed familiarity and develop chemistry with one another . Furthermore, they improved their technique, fundamentals, and confidence as Coach Graham stated. This is a group that should once more provide constant pressure to the quarterback, forcing turnovers even as they work to limit the big plays.
At the start the season, the Sun Devils were not only unable to defend the pass but they were also porous against the run, allowing 4.77 yards per carry on the season and 5.23 yards per carry in conference play. However, by the end of the season we saw that number drop to 4.0 yards per carry. That speaks to the dramatic improvement of the Sun Devils run defense over the course of the season as they gained experience, leading to improved tackling as well as fewer missed assignments and big plays allowed. I expect the run defense to continue their improvement and develop into a respectable, if not formidable, force as they blitz their way to a multitude of tackles for loss.
This offseason the Sun Devils hired Shawn Slocum, formerly special teams coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, in order to bolster a unit that Graham considered to be one of the weaknesses of his team. With the return of Matt Haack at punter and Zane Gonzalez at kicker, the Sun Devils have established legs on special teams that will look to build upon solid performances in the 2014 season. Furthermore, it is expected that Kalen Ballage and De'Chavon 'Gump' Hayes handle return duties. With these players providing a strong core, we could see a much-improved unit as Slocum works to improve consistency in coverage and punting, eliminating one of the few weaknesses of this Sun Devils team.
If Cal is able to utilize all of its weapons and keep the Sun Devils defense on its toes, I expect another high-scoring display for the Bear Raid offense. Of course, that depends whether our O-line can win the battle in the trenches and give Jared Goff enough time to run this offense. Regardless, I believe we will definitely see two things. The Sun Devils defense will make some big plays, but we will also see a well-oiled, experienced Cal offense get theirs.
The Cal defense will have its hands full containing the explosive ASU offense. How our defense performs will depend on how much pressure our defensive line is able to generate and whether we can limit big plays in the air and on the ground. If Cal can limit big plays, generate some pressure and force some turnovers, this could turn out to be a good day for Cal fans. If not, then it could turn out be a very long day indeed.