(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
The roller coaster 2015 Sun Devil football season is reaching the final part of the ride. ASU has thrown just about everyone for a loop with the way its season has turned out, and while it has felt like the Sun Devils have climbed and dropped all year long, now is their final chance to perform at a sustained high level.
They’ll have to do so against a highly touted draft prospect under center.
ASU has faced UCLA’s Paul Perkins, Utah’s Devontae Booker and Oregon’s Royce Freeman, all who have received recognition as potential running backs in the NFL. For the most part, ASU held up pretty well against these talented runners, but has also drastically struggled against the pass on other occasions, giving up numerous big plays throughout the season.
Cal is the second air-raid offense the Sun Devils will face this season, but they have yet to face a quarterback like Cal junior Jared Goff.
According to many NFL Draft pundits, Goff is the No. 1 quarterback draft prospect for the 2015 draft class, and for good reason. He got Cal off to a 5-0 start, averages 337 passing yards per game and is currently fifth in the nation in passing touchdowns this season with 32.
Where Cal differs from most air-raid offenses is how well they run the ball. Still, no one player stands out as the featured back. The Golden Bears have four running backs that have at least 60 carries, but not one has more than 100. Those same four backs each have at least 300 yards, but not one with more than 550.
Washington State was the other opponent that loves to throw the ball, but they do so in a one-dimensional manner with running plays rarely interspersed. Even then, ASU struggled to slow its offense down, and now it has a whole separate dimension of offense to worry about.
The Sun Devils have given up big plays routinely, whether it was due to busted coverage, poor tackling or missed assignment. With the injuries in the secondary ASU has suffered, this becomes an even bigger worry for the matchup against Cal.
Matchups to Watch
Cal Wide Receivers vs. ASU Secondary
What Cal brings to the table is a steady passing game, and that is clear through its receiving numbers: Ten receivers with 100 yards on the season, six with at least 400 yards, nine have scored a touchdown.
Depth is something that Cal can boast at the position, but the counterparts on ASU’s roster cannot say the same.
With season-ending injuries to senior safety Jordan Simone and sophomore safety Armand Perry, both players that roam over the top have had to be replaced this season. Freshman Kareem Orr has done his part breaking an ASU freshman record with five interceptions, but he too has been battling injury issues in the past few weeks.
Whoever is filling in at the safety positions against Cal, whether it be Solomon Means, Chad Adams or James Johnson, is going to have to provide the best safety performance of the year, as they have to contain Goff and his dynamic passing game.
Mike Bercovici vs. Cal Secondary
ASU has the fifth-best passing offense in the conference, and while it is in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in interceptions thrown, Cal likes to feast off interceptions.
The Golden Bears are third in the Pac-12 in picking off the opposing quarterback, having done so 14 times in 11 games this season. While this hasn’t been a problem for ASU this season, Cal could potentially make it one.
The Sun Devils have been relatively good at taking care of the ball in the last three games, only turning it over three times. In this game especially, ASU can’t afford to give Cal and Goff extra possessions.
ASU’s secondary has been the shakiest position defensive group all season long, and today it faces its greatest test.
What it’s going to come down to is how well the unit can keep Goff from finding the deep man and limiting any holes in the defense to potentially create a momentum-swinging, game-changing play in a matter of seconds.
The next-best quarterback prospect out of the Pac-12 this season has been USC’s Cody Kessler, and ASU struggled to keep the USC playmakers in check.
While USC has two of the biggest playmakers in the conference to help him out (Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster), Cal is much deeper at the wide receiver position, and will likely create a lot of problems for ASU.
On the other hand, ASU has had its share of explosive plays as well, but a lot of them have come on the ground between sophomore running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
Big plays are the decisive element, and Cal is much more likely to find them in the air than ASU is on the ground.
Cal wins 35-24.