Arizona State (3-0), ranked No. 22 in this week's Associated Press poll, prepares for what figures to be by far its toughest challenge of the season to this point on Saturday, when it will face No. 21 California (2-1) at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif. The game has a 12:30 p.m. start time locally, and will be televised regionally by ABC.
The last time these two teams met, the Sun Devils traveled to play the Golden Bears on the road was in the middle of the 2004 schedule. At the time ASU was 6-1 and ranked 20th in the country, having lost only to No. 1 USC several weeks prior.
The matchup was expected to be a good one, but the Sun Devils were soundly beaten 27-0 in a contest that saw the program's 109-game scoring streak end. ASU committed five turnovers, including a fumble on the opening kickoff and the mistakes led to three Cal touchdowns.
ASU also went 0-for-3 in their trips in the red zone (inside Cal's 20 yard-line) in the game despite a reported 92-percent success rate to that point in the season.
The Sun Devils have not beaten Cal since 2000, when it won 30-10 in Tempe. Cal coach Jeff Tedford, in his fifth season at Cal, is 3-0 against the Sun Devils since taking over the program in Berkeley.
Tedford has his team playing well in the last couple weeks after a rough opening start to the season at Tennessee, when it lost 35-18 (after being down 35-3 after three quarters). The Golden Bears came back to trounce Minnesota 42-17 a week later in their home opener before easily handling Portland State 42-16 last week.
Offensively the Golden Bears are relatively similar to ASU stylistically, though the Sun Devils use more two-tight end sets. Tedford has the group using more of a spread formation this season and it seems to be working well.
Quarterback Nate Longshore won the team's starting nod last season as redshirt freshman but he suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the team's opener and was lost for the season. Essentially, this is his first year as the team's quarterback and it will be his first-ever Pac-10 game.
Longshore has completed 48-of-74 attempts for 610 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions for a passer rating of 155.46. By comparison, ASU sophomore quarterback Rudy Carpenter's is currently the No. 10 performer in the country in the statistical category, at 169.46.
While Longshore has performed very well, especially in the team's two home games, the Cal offense is heavily reliant on its run game, with one of the nation's top backs, 5-foot-11, 217 pound junior Marshawn Lynch leading the way, and highly capable 5-foot-8, 180 pound junior Justin Forsett backing him up.
Lynch is truly breathtaking physical specimen with tremendous size, speed and versatility. He's carried the ball 45 times for 341 yards (7.2 yards per carry) and three touchdowns through three games.
The Sun Devils have done relatively well against the run to this point and they'll be severely tested by Cal in this game. Against teams running in between the tackles, ASU has done an excellent job. If there is an issue here, it is how successful ASU will be at limiting Cal's ability to run the ball on the edges of the field. That's the area where Colorado had some success last Saturday, when Hugh Charles had 20 carries for 110 yards (5.4 yards-per-carry).
Cal is averaging 162.7 yards per game and this should be a critical stat to keep an eye on in this contest. If ASU is able to hold Cal under its per-game average, it will bode well for the Sun Devils chances of winning the game, particularly when coupled with our other keys to the game, including a positive turnover margin and better third down conversion percentage.
Tedford is well aware of ASU's defensive capabilities, and he appears to believe that Saturday's opponent will blitz early and often as it attempts to shake up Longshore in his first Pac-10 game and keep Cal out of sync offensively.
"They're doing a great job," Tedford said of the ASU this week. "They really play hard. You watch 'em on tape and they really get after you. They have a nice package with the blitz package but they play so hard with [the linemen] up front and they do a nice job of covering which makes you hold the ball a little bit longer and so given that they're able to get after the quarterback pretty well."
The Sun Devils lead the nation with 18 sacks and also have more tackles-for-loss than any Division I team in the country. The defensive line is a broadly talented group and it rotates as many as nine or 10 players, which keeps snap counts down and allows for fresher players to be in the game. At linebacker, Derron Ware and Robert James have been relentless pursuers of opposing quarterbacks and Beau Manutai has been an excellent run stuffer.
"He's a fast guy that comes off the edge and comes up the middle," Tedford said of Ware. "They come from all over the place, but he's the guy who chases people down quite a bit."
Cal's offensive line will perhaps be a bit more susceptible to pressure in this game, as starting right tackle Scott Smith is out of the contest and starting senior left tackle Andrew Cameron is questionable. It's an opportunity ASU will attempt to exploit.
Defensively, the Golden Bears are known as a team that likes to stack eight or nine defenders in the tackle box in order to stop the run and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks on passing downs.
Their base defense on running downs is a standard, solid scheme that ASU will attempt to exploit via its play-action passing game, but in order to do that effectively, the Sun Devils have to establish some success in the run game early in the first half.
Fortunately for the Sun Devils, they had their best effort as a team running the football last week at Colorado. Against an opponent that had given up just 36 yards on 39 attempts through two games, ASU gashed the Buffaloes for 182 net yards on 37 attempts (4.9 yards per rush).
ASU coach Dirk Koetter has seemingly established more defined roles for his stable of quality running backs. Keegan Herring and Ryan Torain played very well against Colorado and should continue to see the bulk of the carries. If they're able to make some big plays early against a Cal defense that has given up 140.7 yards per game on the ground (7th in the Pac-10), it could significantly open up the team's ability to throw the ball vertically downfield.
"There are some crossovers, same exact things that we do, but [Koetter] uses more two-tight end stuff right now. He uses play-action passes, does a nice job with the running game, but always very solid; they're well coached," Tedford said of the ASU offense this week "The tailbacks are good. I was talking to [Cal defensive line coach Ken Delgado and he thinks this is the best collective group that Arizona State's ever had with the ability to run the football, with a good running back and being able to throw the ball, good receivers, good tight ends and a good solid offensive line. He feels like this is the best group that they've had."
Even though that may be the case, the Sun Devils must execute better than they have this season to beat the Golden Bears. Carpenter has not played as well as he's capable of to this point in the season and he appears to be pressing a bit. He's been prone to poor decisions with throwing the football and it's led to some bad interceptions. That's something to avoid against a Cal defense that features Daymeion Hughes, who had three interceptions already and leads the Pac-10 in passes defended.
Junior safety Thomas DeCoud leads the team in tackles and linebackers Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimentel are playmakers. Senior defensive tackle Brandon Mebane has two sacks thus far, and he anchors a capable defensive line.
On special teams, the Bears have a JUCO transfer, Andrew Larson, handling the punting duties. He's averaging 41.8 yards per punt and has done a good job pinning the opposition inside their own 20-yard line. Junior place kicker Tom Schneider had had just one field goal attempt this season, a successful 32-yarder against Tennessee.