(Do NOT want to have to deal with this again)
Even with more than half the season finished, most Cal fans don’t really seem to know what to make of the Bears. The overlying theme appears to be that we don’t do very well against elite opponents, but do a decent job of kicking inferior opponents’ asses. Kind of like an amateur MMA fighter duking it out with high school skateboarders. Can dish out some major ownage but might get knocked around stepping into the big leagues.
But Saturday’s contest might go a long way into revealing more information as the Bears take on a team I fully expect to be a middle of the road conference team this year in the 6th or 7th standing range. The Sun Devils are solid on defense, and just mediocre on offense, which should be interesting for a Bears squad that can be explosive on offense, and suspect on defense.
Plus, take into account a road conference game, and a Bears squad that will have to organize their mental toughness after beating up on two Pac-10 teams expected to finish 9th and 10th in the conference this year (as of now), and you really don’t know what you’re going to get. Let’s take a look to try and figure it out.
Clarifying ASU’s Defense…Just a Little
Before I provide any counter arguments, let me lay this on the table: ASU has got a solid and stout defense. In the few times I’ve had a chance to watch some of their games, I’ve been impressed with the pressure they’ve been able to put on opposing QBs and how quickly they get to the ball and close on rushers. They are not to be taken lightly and are one of the best defenses the Bears will have faced thus far.
With that said, their defensive stats are slightly misleading when it comes to their “dominant rush defense.”
Arizona State is currently ranked 6th in the country in rushing the defense, giving up just 83.43 yards per game. Prior to giving up 237 rushing yards to Stanford last week, the Sun Devils had previously been ranked 2nd in nation in this category.
While that sounds downright scary, you do have to step back with a “Well…” when you look at their opponents. Sure, a schedule including Georgia and Oregon State might sound impressive at first glance, but a closer look at those rushing offenses, and you start to wonder a bit.
Their first opponent, Idaho State is a FCS school that averages a pathetic 32.4 yards per game on the ground.
Louisiana-Monroe is surprisingly one of the better rushing attacks the Sun Devils faced, as the Warhawks ranked 31st in the country, averaging 182 yards per game, but mostly against Sun Belt conference defenses. ULM still managed 136 rushing yards against ASU, averaging 4.1 rushing yards per attempt.
Georgia is ranked 103rd nationally running the ball and Oregon State, despite having Jacquizz Rodgers, is ranked just 73rd in the country in rushing offense. WSU is currently 116th, Washington 96th, and again, we all saw what happened when they faced off against the 15th best rushing offense in the country with Stanford.
Long story short, their dominance is a bit overstated and inflate as a result of facing some poor rushing offenses.
But again, this is more an attempt at consolation than anything else. ASU is still ranked 3rd in the country in interceptions, 31st in total sacks, 11th in total defense, and 25th in scoring defense. Let me reiterate, this is a pretty good defensive squad.
So what do you do against such a defense?
Patience Bears, Patience
Well, a lot of things, but patience is key. The Bears are going to have to do what they haven’t been able to do much of consistently this season, which is to grind it out against a defense. They can not expect to exploit this defense on obvious mismatches often, and bust out for big plays. ASU’s outside linebackers and defensive ends have too much speed to try and consistently bounce it off to the outside. Their middle linebackers and linemen are physical and quick enough that one seam might not be enough for Best or Vereen to turn their usual 5 yard gain into a possible 60 yard score.
It doesn’t happen too often against these guys. The fact is, they’re likely to get pressure, pick up a few sacks, and rack up a number of tackles in the backfield.
But the key is for the Bears to be patient against that. A lot of this, fair or not, will fall on Riley. It might be one of his most mentally draining games as a QB this season, because he’ll have to settle for the fact that it might not be the prettiest of performances in a game of offensive attrition. It could very easily come down to a battle between him and Danny Sullivan to see which QB hangs in there long enough to put the game away in the closing moments. Riley can’t afford to let incompletions or even a turnover rattle him, and keep his poise through all four quarters.
I would hope and expect patience to reverberate through every aspect of the Bears offense on Saturday. Look for mismatches when you can get them, but stick to the game plan of wearing out the defense and testing their patience. For example, the Sun Devils are likely to stack the box early and often, so the Bears can’t try and throw all three downs consistently. If they can suck in the run long enough, it will ultimately yield results later in the game. Stick to the gameplan, and stay patient.
Pressure Danny Sullivan
The most obvious defensive concern is how the Bears will fare against the Sun Devils passing attack. I say that because while ASU seems to have developed somewhat of a running game this year, averaging a modest 141.57 ypg on the ground, Cal’s stout rush defense (yielding 112.7 ypg) will force the Sun Devils to count on their passing game for any offensive success.
Now, ASU QB Danny Sullivan has been subject to some heat from the ASU fanbase for his inconsistent play, and much of ASU’s offensive woes fall on their passing game. But concurrently, the Bears have proven that when their secondary isn’t executing, it doesn’t matter who’s chucking the ball on the other side of the line. (See: four consecutive weeks of giving up +300 yards passing).
But from what I observed in ASU’s game against Stanford, Sullivan is most prone into turnovers and errant passes when he feels pressured in the pocket. He simply doesn’t have enough game experience yet to both perfect his internal QB clock as to when he to let the ball go, or to keep his throwing mechanics consistent when pressured.
On many occasions, I saw him release the ball a bit early when he felt pressure coming, or sail the pass long or high when he feels the rush.
Also, Sullivan still has difficulty recognizing blitzes at the line of scrimmage, as he didn’t demonstrate an ability to detect pressure from a particular side when it was fairly obvious there was an oncoming blitz, and would again be forced into an incompletion.
The answer is hopefully a more aggressive defensive scheme, (similar to what we saw against WSU), with better execution. It may not necessarily be bringing more guys, but again, bringing variation in the types of blitzes. Twists, delayed blitzes, corner blitzes, and the 3-4 package in general, might really help in pressuring a QB who is still coming to find his own level of comfort.
And on the execution end, what can you really say other than that you hope it will be there. Because again, we’ve given many struggling QBs career days this year.
So as not to appear like I am contradicting myself, I am not expecting that Cal goes for the big offensive home run plays right away. But in both of Cal’s losses this year, Cal found themselves down in a big hole early on. Down 25-3 against Oregon and 20-0 against USC at each respective half.
The Bears haven’t shown the capacity this year to rally back from such a lead, and the game might again be over at halftime if the score is remotely close to the ones above. Added attention and focus early in the game on the defensive side of the ball, as well as with Special Teams might give the Bears the additional spark they need to keep the game level going into half time.
Besides, big plays from either of those units (a turnover, a big punt return) always go a long way into taking out the crowd.
Prediction of things to come
This is a big game for the Bears. It will either determine whether the Bears can truly set themselves up for a solid run in the conference and re-enter the national rankings picture, or relegate themselves to a mid-tier bowl.
Hell, if the Bears drop this, with upcoming games against Oregon State, Arizona, Stanford, and Washington, the Bears would be hard pressed to even become bowl eligible.
I expect a close game, but perhaps a few more points than most people expected. Hopefully, Cal shows the toughness they demonstrated against UCLA and Minnesota to close it out.
Cal 31 ASU 20