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Instant analysis/reaction: Bears' 4th down stops fork Sun Devils

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SEPTEMBER 30, 2023

Key takeaways

Run heavy offenses

Both Cal and Arizona State relied heavily on the ground game. The Bears used their deep running back room and Sam Jackson V’s dual-threat prowess to attack the Sun Devil defense — Cal’s one-two punch of Jaydn Ott and Isaiah Ifanse moved the Bears down the field.

Ifanse secured the team’s first touchdown of the game and his fifth on the season. Ott later scored a crucial touchdown in the fourth quarter, his fifth of the season and his fourth 100-yard rushing game of his career.

On the opposite end of the field, ASU was forced to prioritize its run game. Down to third-string quarterback Trenton Bourguet, the Sun Devils leaned on running back Cam Skattebo as the offense’s engine. Skattebo ran multiple wildcat formations to convert short-yardage downs and score ASU’s first touchdown of the game. In the first half alone, Skattebo had 17 carries for 42 yards.

The Bears’ linebackers

With both teams committing to their respective run games, Cal linebackers had their hands full defending the run. Inside linebackers Jackson Sirmon and Kaleb Elarms-Orr combined for 20 tackles in the first half, with a game-high 15 tackles from Elarms-Orr. The duo finished with 28 tackles between the two of them.

The duo plugged many of the running lanes created by Arizona State’s offensive line, hitting the Sun Devil running backs fast and furiously, holding them to short gains. On a critical fourth-and-one in Bear territory, the two joined together to stuff Skattebo short of the line-to-gain midway through the second quarter.

Due in large part to the Bears’ linebackers and their efforts against the run game, Cal held Arizona State to 68 rushing yards for the game, with the Sun Devils averaging only 2.3 per rush. This improvement comes after the Bears’ blowout loss last week to No. 8 Washington, a game in which they allowed 4.7 yards a carry for a total of 140 rushing yards.

Critical fourth downs 

Arizona State excited the football analytic community by going for it on a number of fourth-and-ones. The Sun Devils converted two of their five fourth- down attempts, including a trick play in which running back Skattebo passed the ball to quarterback Bourguet.

The Bears also held their own on these momentum-swinging plays, stifling Arizona State in the trenches, one of which came on the Sun Devils’ questionable choice to go for it on their own 31-yard line.

And there were unexpected decisions in the redzone. On two separate occasions in the third quarter, with ASU trailing Cal, the Sun Devils opted to go for it on fourth-and-goal on the six-yard line. However, both attempts were called dead due to self-inflicted penalties from Arizona State.

An illegal substitution by the Sun Devils took back what would have been a touchdown pass from Skattebo to Elijah Badger in the wildcat formation. On the subsequent drive, a false start prevented ASU from making a scoring attempt. Both penalties resulted in field goals, but the Bears were more content with surrendering the three points — not touchdowns.

The game was ultimately decided on a fourth-down attempt. With ASU down a field goal with a minute left, Cal’s defense stood tall and forced Bourguet into an incompletion down the middle, securing the 24-21 win for the Bears.

Eye-Opening Stats

Jeremiah Hunter was the only wide receiver for Cal to catch a pass from Jackson until the three- minute mark of the fourth quarter.

Cal punter Lachlan Wilson had two of his longest punts of his career today, with a 53-yarder and 59-yarder, both of which downed the Sun Devils within the 10-yard line. He had four punts over 53 yards on the day.

Ifanse reached the 4,000-career rushing yards milestone in his fifth season of collegiate football.

Game MVP

Though Elarms-Orr and Sirmon came up huge for Cal’s defense, Hunter and Ott were sensational through the air and on the ground.

Jeremiah Hunter was indispensable for Cal’s passing game. He followed his SportsCenter Top-10 catch at Washington with another highlight-reel touchdown catch. Off of a beautiful back shoulder pass from Jackson, Hunter came up with the 21-yard reception by the left pylon.

In addition to the touchdown catch, Hunter finished with sixth catches for 89 yards. It was his tenth-straight game with at least five receptions and fourth touchdown reception this season.

Meanwhile, Ott returned to form and steamrolled the ASU defense. He finished with 169 yards on 29 carries and a touchdown. His efforts late in the game sealed Cal’s victory. With Ott stacking up multiple first down runs, the Bears drained seven minutes off the clock and all of ASU’s timeouts by the time the Sun Devils got the ball back.

Looking Forward

With teams in the conference annihilating each other left and right, the Bears will run into a red-hot No. 19 Oregon State fresh off this week’s upset of No. 10 Utah. The uphill battle only seems to increase for the blue and gold, as the team now heads into a slew of nationally ranked competitors. Matchups against teams in the bottom half of the conference are made all the more important for Cal.

Contact Kenzo Fukuda at 


OCTOBER 01, 2023