September 23, 2006

Arizona State visits Bear Territory

While I haven't done a full analysis, and while I'm still stinging from how atrociously wrong I got the Tennessee game, here goes...

This game will come down to three things:

  1. Can Cal's injury-plagued offensive line hold up against a D line that leads the nation in sacks with 18 and has not allowed a rushing TD in three games?
  2. Can the Bear pass defense, 9th in the Pac-10 statistically, hold up against the #2 pass offense in the Pac-10?
  3. How much weight do you put on ASU's weak schedule and Cal's difficult schedule when looking at the stats?
ASU and Cal are ranked pretty closely by most services and polls. 3-0 ASU is #20/#18 in the AP & Coaches polls, while Cal is #22/#20. Sagarin puts Cal #21 and ASU #24, predicting a 5-point Cal win when you consider home field advantage. The betting public seems to like Cal better, with the line having gone from Cal -7 to Cal -9 in one case.

But looking at the stats doesn't really bear that optimism out. I think this game is much more even, and the stats would give ASU the slight edge, I think. (But again, how much weight do you put on the strength of schedule after only three games?)

Some quick hits (all Pac-10 rankings, not national):
  • ASU brings the #2 pass offense against the #9 pass defense
  • ASU's rushing offense is slightly better than Cal's, averaging the same yards per carry (4.8), one more rush yard per game (162), and gaining two more touchdowns than Cal (6 vs 4).
  • ASU's pass offense is for real, leading the league in TDs (9) and yards per pass (9.3). They also have a good 63.7% completion rate. (Carpenter has thrown 4 interceptions, however.)
  • ASU allows a measly 12.7 points per game, #2 behind USC. Cal allows 22.7 points per game.
  • ASU's rushing defense has been outstanding, allowing just 104 yards per game, 2.6 yards per carry (best in the conference), and no touchdowns. Cal's rush defense gives up 3.9 yards per carry and 140 yards per game, but they have held opponents to just 2 rushing TDs.
  • ASU's pass defense is mediocre except for 5 interceptions in 3 games while allowing just 4 passing touchdowns. They do allow 7.5 yards per pass, 3rd worst in the league. Cal, however, allows 9.2 yards per pass, far and away the worst in the Pac-10. In addition, Cal has given up 6 passing TDs but gained 4 interceptions, and they're giving up nearly 240 yards passing a game.
  • Overall, Cal's defense is 2nd worst in the league, allowing 6.2 yards per play and nearly 380 yards a game. They've given up 8 TDs, 3rd worst in the league. ASU, meanwhile gives up just 4.4 yards per play (2nd best) and has given up just 4 offensive TDs (3rd best).
Nothing else really jumps out at you except for 18 sacks and the fact that ASU has outscored opponents 49-7 in the second half this year.

Are some of these stats starting to sound familiar? I think the ASU defense sounds a lot like Cal's dominating defense of the year we got screwed out of the Rose Bowl. Low point totals. Low yards per rush allowed. Dominant in the second half of games.

On the other side, ASU has as strong a passing attack as Cal has seen. The young DBs must improve, or Cal must get huge pass pressure, if the Bears are to keep the devils from getting to the end zone frequently.

Cal fans no doubt remember that Dirk Koetter's teams are 0-10 in the state of California, and ASU are 0-3 in their last three games against Cal. But the Bears did not see ASU last year, and the Sun Devils have been improving since they got thumped 27-0 the last time the two teams met. The Devils have been to two straight bowl games (though they had to rally to beat Arizona to end last year at 6-5).

Finally, do not count on any emotional wreckage from the whole Sam Keller affair. ASU has been performing well since then. The risk for the Devils is if Carpenter gets injured; their only backup is a redshirt freshman who's never played.

So... predicting this game comes down to a few philosophical questions:
  1. How much weight do you put on ASU's weak schedule and Cal's strong schedule when analyzing the stats?
  2. Do you believe the stats reflect the team at this point in the season?
  3. Do you believe in home field advantage?
Personally, I think that after three games the stats start to show the overall character of the team. There will be some movement, but generally Arizona, Washington, and Stanford will still be at the bottom at the end of the season, and USC, Oregon, ASU, and Cal will be at the top (offensively, at least). Cal's pass defense has been surprisingly atrocious (thanks to the injury to Tim Mixon), and the run defense has not been as good as expected. Will that continue, or will the Bears climb up the rankings statistically? (I believe the latter.)

Finally, there's the wildcard. Last time the teams met, the Sun Devils handed the ball over five times. That's not likely to happen this week, though we'll see if either team suffers fumbleitis or pick syndrome.

This is Cal's first true test. Was the Tennessee game an aberration or a predictor of how the Bears will fare against very good teams? Cal still has a lot to prove, and they can go a long way towards that with a solid victory today. But ASU also has a lot to prove, facing their first good opponent this year. It's a big test for them, too, and they'll be ready to fight hard.

In the end, I believe that Cal is still the superior team, and that the stats are lying just a little bit. This will be a close game, but I think the Bears will hang on something like 30-28.

Go Bears!

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