Cal to fight off own demons against Arizona State

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Earlier this week, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham called Cal’s offensive line the best one his team will have faced this year, citing it as the “greatest challenge defensively.”

He must not have watched much tape.

The Bears will limp back into Berkeley to face off with the Sun Devils (3-1, 1-0 in the Pac-12) Saturday at 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.

Cal is 1-3 for the first time since 2003 and is coming off a horrid offensive performance against USC last weekend, in which an average Trojans defense held the squad to just nine points. The root of the problem for Cal in that game — as well as the season as a whole — lay along its front five, which were absolutely dominated. A week after giving up six sacks to Ohio State, the line topped its performance by giving up seven more.

“We have one guy with experience up there,” said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. “They played against some pretty competitive guys, and that won’t change.”

The line is missing two key starters, seniors Matt Summers-Gavin and Dominic Galas, who played in every game last year. Their absence has left a very shaky and inexperienced line behind, with just center Brian Schwenke having any legitimate experience.

Summers-Gavin hasn’t been ruled out for Saturday. But Galas won’t be back until late October, meaning more forced playing time for its inexperienced linemen.

“They’re competing hard and they’re learning,” Tedford said. “It’s a good test for them. They’re learning under fire. I’m sure they’ll continue to improve.”

While last Saturday’s performance essentially left only room for improvement, the Sun Devils’ front seven looks poised to be the next unit that exposes Cal’s most glaring weakness. Arizona State’s defense is averaging more than nine tackles for a loss per game, and is second in the Pac-12 with 14 sacks on the year.

However, that defense has yet to face a legitimate offense. Three out of its four games this year have come against backup quarterbacks, two of whom were making their first start of the year. The only starting quarterback that the squad has faced came from an FCS school. So while the defense is allowing its opponents just 274 yards of total offense per game, and has forced 10 turnovers already this year — the ninth most in the nation — those stats almost deserve an asterisk next to them.

Still, Graham, in his first year as head coach, has his team playing cohesive and disciplined football — all of which were lacking from the 2011 team that lost six of its last seven games.

“They’re physical and very disciplined in what they’re doing,” Tedford said. “They always have had good athletes, and that hasn’t changed.”

Cal claims to be treating this game as it would any other normal conference home game, but it’s hard to imagine that the team doesn’t have a heightened sense of urgency. The Bears need to win five of their remaining eight games in order to become bowl eligible, and a loss against a team like Arizona State might make that goal nearly unattainable.

While the Bears seem to be trying to downplay the importance of Saturday’s game, Graham has no problem expressing how pivotal the result could be to the rest of his season. His team hasn’t won a game at Memorial Stadium since 1997 and has lost eight of its last nine matchups with Cal.

Yet 2012 might be the best opportunity ASU has had in years to end that streak.

“I looked at the schedule at the beginning of the year, just being honest with you, and I looked at Utah and Cal and said, ‘That’ll determine our season,'” Graham said. “So that’s how important this game is.”

Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]

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