Cal football fans have a fond memory of Arizona State. The last thing they remember was then-quarterback Jared Goff putting on a stunning performance in his final regular season game for the Bears. After trailing 24-3 in the first half, he led Cal to a 48-46 comeback victory with 542 yards, five touchdowns and a drive that led to the game-winning field goal.
Both teams look different this season, but as the Bears travel to Tempe, Arizona to open Pac-12 play this weekend, the style of the game should be similar. With two high-powered offenses looking to expose holes in relatively weak defenses, a shootout is expected Saturday night.
While the Sun Devils did put up three passing touchdowns in the first half of last year’s game ─ exposing a porous Bears secondary which is still in question today ─ it was their run game which really made things difficult for Cal’s defense. They possessed the ball for over 37 minutes of game clock, led by Demario Richard who rushed for 131 yards.
Richard returns this season ranked in the top-30 nationally in rushing yards, and is poised to face a Cal defense which ranks 126 out of 128 teams nationally in rushing yards per game at 296.3. In addition, the Sun Devils’ new quarterback, redshirt sophomore Manny Wilkins, also poses a threat on the ground, having run for 191 yards and a touchdown this season.
This week, the Bears front will be pummeled by Wilkins, Richard and Kalen Ballage, who has nine rushing touchdowns on the season, including an astonishing seven against Texas Tech two weeks ago. Just last week, Cal struggled with Texas’ similar ground game ─ two big running backs, in addition to a backup quarterback who scrambled ─ which amassed over 300 yards.
“The big thing you have to count for is the 11th guy,” said Cal defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “There’s so many times that quarterbacks, if they’re not in the run game or whatever, then you’re playing against 10 and a guy throwing the ball, but when you get to that, when it’s an 11th guy, you got to make sure it’s a run fit.”
On the other side of the ball, however, ASU’s defense is in a similar predicament ─ weak where the opposing offense is strong. The Bears boast the nation’s second-best passing offense, with an average of 453 yards per game through the air. Quarterback Davis Webb ─ who sits second in total passing yards as well as touchdown passes with 1,359 and 13, respectively ─ will look to pick apart the Sun Devils’ defense, which ranks dead last among FBS teams in passing yards allowed per game.
Although Webb should be able to rack up numbers, Cal is seemingly stronger when it doesn’t have to rely solely on its pass game. In the week two loss at San Diego State, Webb needed 72 attempts to throw for 522 yards, but in last week’s victory, the Bears had a perfect balance of 40 runs and 40 passes, and Webb still managed 396 yards and four touchdowns.
“Their front is really good and they’ve done a great job stopping the run. People have not been very efficient, at all, at running the ball against them. And so for us, we want to be balanced,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “I think that makes it better for our quarterback when we can run the ball. And so it’s always important for us to be able to run it.”
Webb and the offense will have to take advantage of poor opposing defenses while they can, because based on the performances of their future opponents, Cal may certainly be on the losing end of its final six games this season. The Bears have split their last two games, but after the win against Texas, another win this weekend could go a long way in helping Cal’s bowl game chances.
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].