October 27, 2004

Cal vs ASU

This game will very likely decide who goes to the Rose Bowl. With just four games remaining, ASU faces only Stanford before closing the year with easy wins at home against WSU and on the road at Arizona. Cal will have Oregon and Stanford at home and Washington on the road (plus USM).

ASU is already bowl-eligible at 6-1 (3-1 Pac-10). Their only loss was to USC, a 45-7 blowout in Los Angeles the week after USC barely nipped Cal. Cal is looking to get bowl-eligible (5-1, 3-1 Pac-10). Their only loss was the 23-17 near-miss in Los Angeles at USC.

Cal is #8 in the current BCS poll and #7 AP/#8 ESPN. ASU is #15 in the BCS poll and #20 AP/#21 ESPN. ASU would probably be ranked higher but for their low preseason expectations. Sagarin puts ASU at #10 (86.26) and Cal at #5 (89.52). With the home advantage (3.36), Sagarin makes Cal a 6 1/2-point favorite. The oddsmakers give ASU less respect, though, and they expect the Bears to triumph by at least two touchdowns.

ASU was not given much respect preseason, either, being picked to finish 6th in the conference behind even OSU and WSU.

Arizona State is one of only two teams (Michigan the other) to score more than 16 points against Iowa (currently #24)--ASU scored 44 and allowed only 7 in that game. The big question for Bears fans is this: Which game is the aberration and which is the true ASU... the 45-7 shellacking they took at USC or the 44-7 beating they put on Iowa at home? Or is the answer somewhere in between?

Offensively, the answer lies with ASU's passing game. ASU has had 350 or more yards passing in three games, and scored 4 or more passing TDs in each of those games. Yet they have five games rushing less than 130 yards a game, and in all seven games they rushed for less than 140. They have only four rushing TDs as a team. Consider: ASU as a team has 735 yards rushing and 4 TDs in seven games, averaging 2.9 yards per rush. JJ Arrington has 918 yards in six games with 10 TDs, averaging 7.2 yards per rush. Even with that, they're 4th in the Pac-10 in scoring with 32.1 points per game, with three games scoring over 40 points.

You would look at those stats and think they pass 75% of the time, but they don't. They have rushed 252 times and passed 279 times, pretty balanced at 52.5% passing and 47.5% rushing. Yet they have 22 TDs passing and only 4 rushing, they get 7.2 yards per catch versus 2.9 yards per rush. Even so, it gets stranger: They complete only 54.8% of their passes (6th in the Pac) and are 5th in passing efficiency. Also, they hit on 42.7% of their third downs (at 117 chances, they are 2nd-most in the league and have by far the most conversions).

ASU is also best in the Pac in the red zone, scoring on 25 of their 27 opportunities. Only two other teams have more red zone chances than ASU: USC (37) and Oregon (34). But not all is so rosy: Only 16 of those 25 scores were touchdowns. They have confidence in their kicker, who's made 9 of 10 in the red zone. Compare these stats to Cal: With 27 opportunities in the red zone (more per game than ASU), Cal has scored TDs on 21 of those occasions and have come up without points just three times.

Part of ASU's passing success is due to WR Hagan, who has four 100-yard receiving games this year (Iowa, UCLA, UTEP, N'western) and 10 in his career. He has 7 of ASU's passing TDs. But seven players have touchdown catches for the Sun Devils, so you can't just blanket Hagan and ignore the others.

Perhaps the most impressive stat of ASU's is their +10 turnover margin (1.4 per game). They have not lost a fumble this year, and QB Walter has thrown just 7 interceptions in their 7 games. They have gained 6 fumbles and 11 interceptions, however, most notably 4 picks each from UTEP and UCLA.

ASU's OL is young (two sophomores and two juniors, plus one graduate student) and not huge (they average 299 pounds; Cal's D line weighs in at 285 average), so the Bear defense should be able to stop the run and focus on the pass a bit more. Their running backs are three freshmen and a junior, which also is a reason their running game is weak. Walter is the real deal, however, so this will be a real test of Cal's passing defense. Walter may be the most dangerous QB the Bears face all year, including Matt Leinart. Yet he was abysmal against Oregon State and USC and was schitzophrenic (3 int, 6 TD) against UCLA.

The key to stopping Walter is apparently a very good defensive backfield. Oregon State and USC both have outstanding DBs, and those are the two teams to hold Walter to relatively low numbers (a combined 39-for-79 with two interceptions and 1 touchdown). While QB pressure will be important in helping the DBs do their job on Saturday, I think the key will be in how well the DBs step up to the challenge. Cal's speed and experience here, coupled with their intense rushing defense, will hold ASU relatively in check. I think the Sun Devils will score way more than just 7 points (night game, smaller crowd, Rose Bowl on the line, revenge factor for the past two years), but I don't think they'll get more than 28. Maybe 31 if the Bears have that one extra turnover they've been giving up recently.

On the other side of the ball, ASU's defense has been pretty stingy. Through the first five games, they gave up an average of 12.5 points per game. In their last two games, however, they have given up 45 and 42 points. Those (USC and UCLA) are both good offenses, better than anything they'd faced yet. And this week it steps up another notch for them with Arrington's powerful running, Rodgers' efficient passing, and Cal's huge O line.

The ASU defensive line averages just 264 pounds (compare to Cal's O line at 312 pounds). USC and UCLA both have very large O lines as well, and both had good success running the ball as well as overall offensive success. ASU has collected 23 sacks, however, 3rd in the Pac-10, including 3 against UCLA and one against USC. Over half of those are by the DL, evenly spread out among the starters. Their top three tacklers, though, are linebackers. I think this suggests that their system is working reasonable well--you want sacks from your DL and tackles from your LBs. The D line also has a large number of tackles for loss, also evenly spread among them.

Overall, ASU's defense is statistically solid but unimpressive. They're fourth in scoring defense at 21.6 points per game, but against top offenses in their last two games they gave up 92 points. They are 5th in rushing defense giving up 121 yards per game and 9 rushing TDs, with a relatively high 3.6 yards per carry allowed. They are dead last in passing defense, allowing 236 yards per game, but they have 11 interceptions to 9 passing TDs allowed, and pretty close to the league average at 55% completions allowed and giving up a reasonably low 6.4 yards per catch.
Compare to Cal's offense: #1 in scoring (41 ppg, 34 TDs, 5.7 TDs/game), #1 in rushing (245 yards per game, 18 rushing TDs, 5.8 yards per carry), #5 in passing offense (263 ypg, 16 TDs, an astounding 9.9 yards per catch and an eye-popping 73.6% completion rate), and #1 in total offense (508 yards per game, 7.4 yards per play). UCLA is the closest thing to such a balanced, powerful attack in the conference, and they're way back in the distance. ASU simply have not faced as big, powerful, strong, and efficient attack as Cal's.

The Bears should be able to run on ASU like UCLA did (233 yards, 3 rushing TDs), and they should also be able to pass like UCLA did most of the game (30 of 45 for 325 yards and 2 TDs, though UCLA threw FOUR interceptions).

Like UCLA, however, the Bears could be done in by turnovers. While it's unlikely that ASU will go the entire season without losing a single fumble, they are +10 overall while Cal is -3. Rodgers has thrown four interceptions to his 159 completions, and most were probably not his fault, but the Bears have to take care of the football and not hand it over to ASU in good field position.
When I began looking at the stats, I was very concerned that ASU is a powerful team, one that should probably be in the top 15. While they are good, and they are capable of beating the Bears, I think Cal should win this game nine times out of ten, in convincing fashion. The tenth time is when Walter is on fire and turnovers change the game, and even then it would be more like the thrilling comeback ASU had against UCLA last week: close and high-scoring, with late plays deciding the final.

I see no reason to think that Cal will suffer a major letdown against a team that just put up 48 points and is in the path of their steamroller ride to bowl eligibility and, hopefully, a Rose Bowl. The Bears could come out flat, however, due to the late kickoff and the expected lack of fans in the seats (the Cal press release says attendance is expected to be a season-low 51,000). If they do, and they allow ASU to get some turnovers and catch fire in the passing game, they could be in big trouble.

I don't think it'll happen though, based on this team's history and the raw talent and power they have. I think this game goes Cal's way from the opening drive, similar to the UCLA game. ASU will make a good first half of it, but in the second half their O and D lines simply won't be able to stay with Cal's linemen, and Arrington will put on a serious show in the second half. I think Cal's defense will hector Walter all night, and Cal's DBs will defend well. ASU will be forced to pass the entire second half, so I hope to see a few sacks for the Bears and a lot of third-and-long situations for the Sun Devils.

I think Cal begins to pull away seriously in the third quarter after going into halftime 28-17, with the final score Cal 48, ASU 27.

Go Bears!

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