Rise to the occasion: No. 15 Cal faces tough test against Arizona State

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Expectations and Cal football do not mix well. 

Entering this Friday’s matchup as the No. 15 team in the nation, according to the latest AP poll, the Bears face a brighter spotlight — listed as slight favorites over the visiting Arizona State Sun Devils. In its last eight games at home against the spread, however, Cal is just 2-6.

Trying to flip the script on their recent track record, the Bears will seek their fifth straight victory to start the year: battling a densely talented yet underdeveloped Sun Devils squad led by head coach and NFL legend Herm Edward.

“Great to be back home … excited to come back with a win after last week,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “We have great momentum going into this game.”

Cal is riding high after receiving its highest ranking in nearly a decade, starting the season undefeated through four games for the first time since 2015. Head coach Justin Wilcox and his staff have galvanized the team and surrounding community to take notice of what they have built this season — a team willing to fight for themselves and for each other.

More than 50,000 fans are expected to pack into California Memorial Stadium to watch what unfolds, but one pressing question remains: Can Cal live up to the hype?

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chase Garbers is coming off his best performance as a Bear against Ole Miss last weekend, after passing for a career-high in yardage (357) and touchdowns (four). It was the first time the coaching staff saw Garbers bring the accuracy and precision he has shown in practice all season to a game. 

“With the execution we had on Saturday (against Ole Miss), anything was possible for our offense,” Garbers said. “We just have to carry over what we do in practice into the games. I think we lacked that for the first three weeks of the season.”

As the season has worn on for Cal’s offense, despite the losses of key pieces on the offensive line in Will Craig and Gentle Williams, its execution on big plays and third downs has been essential to its success. 

In the running game, however, Cal struggled with its worst showing against Ole Miss — as dependable duo Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy combined for just 58 yards. Having been Baldwin’s outlet for the first three games of the season, it’s imperative that the Bears’ running game gets back on track against a stout ASU defensive front.

The Sun Devils boast one of the nation’s strongest run defenses, led by linebacker Merlin Robertson, a second-team preseason All-Pac-12 selection. Through week five, the front seven is allowing just 103.3 yards per contest on the round, the third-best mark in the Pac-12.

Prior to last weekend’s loss at the hands of Colorado, Arizona State had surrendered just seven points in each of its first three games — all wins including a huge victory at Michigan State.

On the other side of the coin, ASU’s true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels is leading one of the most talented offenses in the Pac-12. But growing pains have persisted, and the Sun Devils have yet to have a wire-to-wire consistent performance through four weeks this season. 

At the rear of Daniels, running back Eno Benjamin is due for a breakout performance after starting the season. With enough speed to outrun anyone on Cal’s defense — even Evan Weaver, the nation’s leader in tackles — Benjamin poses a legitimate threat to Cal’s injury-ridden defensive front, a unit that has allowed 141.3 yards per game.

“Last week I don’t think we tackled very well. (We talked about) how we can play better in pass defense, in coverage and in pass rush,” Wilcox said. “So there are a number of things (we can improve on).”

ASU’s 36 percent touchdown conversion rate in the red zone ranks second to last in the Pac-12, however — a mark that the Bears’ 11-headed monster of a defense is eager to take advantage of. This team’s grit and relentless aggression is something that   Daniels and company have yet to play against.

The significance of this game for both teams cannot be understated. It will be a battle not only on the field, but on the sidelines, in an attempt to outshine the other and stamp their authority on a wide-open Pac-12 race.

“I expect (the student section) to be packed,” Weaver said. “Get a few chants going and get the crowd riled up. We lead with your energy.”

Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on ESPN.

Spencer Golanka is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.