Hey, remember that time Cal beat 11th-ranked Texas in a huge upset, shocking the nation and redefining our very expectations for what this team could achieve? You might have even read about it on this very site. Well, the time has come to stop patting ourselves on the back for that one, because the Bears have another game this weekend and it could be a doozy. (It might be time to lay off Longhorn fans anyway, seeing as they can get a little bit sensitive.)
The Bears travel to Tempe this weekend as they open up conference play against the Arizona State Sun Devils. ASU is one of four undefeated teams in the Pac-12, and they present an interesting challenge for our team. In fact, they’re sort of Cal’s analog in the Pac-12 South this season. I mean, just look at this box score.
Like the Bears, the Sun Devils are breaking in a new QB and offensive coordinator. Like the Bears, they’ve got a fancy new wide receiver who’s making life difficult on their opponents. And like the Bears, they’ll field a top-10 offense alongside a bottom-of-the-barrel defense.
That top-10 offense comes from the coaching mind of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who came to ASU after lighting up Conference USA as the OC at Southern Miss. You’ll get very familiar with this phrase as we progress through the conference schedule, but his scheme falls into the category of up-tempo spread. Notably, it’s almost exactly the same offense as that of his predecessor, Mike Norvell. And though the numbers from last year don’t jump out at you all too much, Lindsey’s teams feast on the big play.
Lindsey’s offense has been somewhat hit-or-miss through three games in 2016. ASU started off slowly against lesser opponents NAU and UTSA before finding itself in the second half. That wasn’t an issue against Texas Tech, against which the Sun Devils racked up 68 points and 652 yards. Their ability to get a fast start against the Bears will be a major factor in the outcome of this game.
Settling into his new starting job is sophomore Manny Wilkins, a former San Marin quarterback who checks in at a very Jared Goff-ian 6’3”/190. He won the job after the departure of Mike Bercovici, and has performed capably in his first three starts. His completion rate (66.3%) just eclipses Davis Webb’s, although his four touchdowns seem rather pedestrian considering the Sun Devils’ offensive production.
It is said by those who know that Wilkins is a rather mobile quarterback, and his 7.4 ypc sees to indicate that they are correct. That’ll be something to watch for as the Sun Devils employ a fair number of option runs. When Wilkins does drop back to pass—which he’ll do about 40% of the time—he can sometimes key in on one receiver rather than going through his progressions. Then again, Davis Webb does the same thing and it usually works out okay. Wilkins may not have the same sort of hype as a Shane Buchele, but he’s proven to be plenty capable of running this offense.
The thing about September football is that players may look like Heisman candidates, when they’re really just due for some regression. Enter Kalen Ballage, who has apparently morphed from a good second RB into an unstoppable scoring machine. The 6’3” junior is currently averaging 6.9 ypc (which is comparable to Vic Enwere) and has scored 9 TDs on 37 touches (which is not). He’s still the Sun Devils’ #2 back, but his production is way up thanks to the advent of the Sparky formation. Especially in the red zone, Ballage will line up for the direct snap and use the power run to barrel in for a touchdown. He did just that an NCAA-record-tying eight times against Texas Tech. Cal largely bottled up Texas’ attempts to do something similar with the 18-Wheeler formation, so maybe we won’t face the same fate.
Ballard’s partner in the backfield is junior Demario Richard. Don’t let his relatively slow start to the season or my poorly conceived paragraph structure fool you; Richard is the lead back in this offense. He’s a more complete back and can make plays out in space, which has made him a consistent target in the passing game. Until Ballage can prove that he can perform consistently—he had just 62 yards against UTSA—we’ll see a heavy dose of Demario Richard.
The Sun Devils lost their two top receivers in D.J. Foster and Devin Lucien, but they’ve got some new weapons that make this a dangerous unit. First among these is true freshman N’Keal Harry, who leads the team in pretty much every metric through three games. He’s caught two of Wilkins’ four TDs, including a spectacular one-hander against UTSA. With his height and size, he could be a dangerous assignment for any of Cal’s DBs.
Also joining the rotation is junior Cameron Smith, a speedster who is making his return after sitting out 2015 with a knee injury. In the slot will be senior Tim White, who led the team in targets before missing most of the UTSA game due to an ankle sprain. If he’s healthy, White will be Wilkins’ first look as well as a major contributor in the return game.
This unit seemed like a potential weakness after losing four of last year’s starters in the offseason, but a number of players have stepped up and delivered solid performances thus far. Anchoring the group is LT Evan Goodman, the only major returning contributor and one of three seniors along the line. The two-deep includes a couple of junior college transfers, though Cal’s rushers will have a chance to challenge a few freshmen who will crack the rotation.
My main interest this week will be the way Cal’s defense handles ASU’s running game, especially against Kalen Ballage and the Sparky formation power run. Though Cal stiffened up against Texas’ run game in the second half last week, I’ll be watching to see whether they can tackle competently enough to keep Ballage from setting another NCAA record. Texas seemed to bowl them over every time they needed a short gain, which won’t fly this time around. ASU will present the most balanced offense the Bears have seen so far (not to mention the one most representative of what they’ll see the rest of the way), so this figures to be an interesting test. If they show up the way they did against Texas Tech, this could be a rough one. But if the Bears can channel their inner Roadrunner, then they’ll improve to 3-1.