A high-scoring affair is on tap between the Sun Devils and Golden Bears.
Points and big plays won't be in short supply on Saturday night, as California and Arizona State meet in Tempe. Both teams are capable of scoring points in a hurry, with Vegas setting the over/under above 80 points. Needless to say, if you like offense, this is the game to watch on Saturday night.
California's win over Texas last weekend was almost a picture perfect ending to the Texas saga for offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and quarterback Davis Webb. For Spavital, there’s something about being an A&M guy and beating Texas. For the latter, you don’t grow up in Texas as a quarterback without idolizing the Longhorns and Webb was snubbed by Texas for the very quarterback he beat on Saturday - a quarterback he almost never got to play until leaving Texas Tech as a graduate transfer this offseason. Cal was Webb’s first and only shot at the Longhorns and he took it well.
This now means Cal is back in the driver’s seat and is looking to go to 3-1 and 1-0 in conference play, something far more important than worrying about a loss to San Diego State. As close as the Bears got to the polls with a win over Texas, surely a win over Arizona State would see them into the Top 25 ahead of their trip to Utah, who have a physical matchup with the Trojans this weekend.
As per usual, offense is not the issue for Sonny Dykes and his Bear Raid system. Cal currently ranks No. 2 in the nation in passing offense (453 ypg), third in total offense (580.3 ypg), and 10th in scoring offense (47 ppg). This is a team built to throw the ball all over the field and put up points. What the Bears have been lacking has been a defense to back that up.
The Bears’ defense may not be on its way to becoming the Crimson Tide, but Cal is beginning to master a quality that can win an Air Raid team a title - forcing turnovers on defense. Timely interceptions and forced fumbles have been good to the Bears in 2016 and that is something they would prefer to keep going as they prepare to take on the Sun Devils. Todd Graham’s Arizona State teams are known for their tough defensive schemes and a delicious offensive mixture of run and pass.
After San Diego State, Cal players had to be feeling a little dejected, but a huge win over a program like Texas give the Bears a huge boost. The template is there for the Bears and they just need to follow it to victory. Holding Texas to 10 points in the second half of last week's game is just the kind of key ingredient the Bears have been missing from their tool kit. Now they’ll be expected to do that week in and week out, having proven that they can in successive weeks.
Cal at Arizona State
Kickoff: 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona State -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Davis Webb Needs to Maintain His Drive
Webb is the exact kind of leader Cal needed in the wake of Jared Goff’s departure to the NFL. More than just being a big arm, Webb has experience in games and against teams like the Sun Devils. The last time the Sun Devils’ defense tried to gameplan for Webb, he dissected them like an owl pellet in grade school. In the 2013 Holiday Bowl, he was 28-of-41 for 403 yards and four touchdowns.
Webb is the real deal and should benefit greatly during his time at Cal under Spavital. His patience and delivery are there, but he does need the experience and time to find people downfield. Outside of his anomaly against San Diego State, Webb has really limited his mistakes. He currently has 13 touchdowns to only three interceptions. When you consider that Cal is already at 166 passing attempts in three games with Webb, that's an outstanding start to a season with high expectations.
2. Minimize Three-And-Outs Against ASU
The Sun Devils have been on point when it comes to forcing their opponents to kick the ball after three plays. 36.4% of Arizona State’s defensive series’ end in a three-and-out. That’s nearly 40% of a team’s possession being squandered in three plays. In all, the Sun Devils have forced 16 three-and-outs of their 44 defensive stands. These types of numbers will win you a lot of ball games and this is the sort of physical play one draws up in their mind when thinking about the Sun Devils’ style.
Should Cal be able to limit those three-and-outs, they can test the ability of this ASU defense. With the rate that Cal has been putting up offensive points and yards, there is a strong chance they could put this game out reach before ASU even has a chance to gain a foothold in the game. In fact, the last two times these teams have played, Cal has erased a 21-point deficit en route to victory over the Sun Devils.
3. Keep Chad Hansen Happy
The redshirt junior has shown no signs of slowing up as the season continues. Hansen currently leads the nation in per-game receptions (13.3 rpg) and receiving yards (178.7). And perhaps most importantly, he is tied for first in the nation with touchdown grabs (five). Just how dominant is Hansen? His closest competitor is currently 103 yards behind him. That’s basically a full game’s head start.
If Hansen continues to have the kind of productivity he has been enjoying this season, it’s hard to imagine the Bear wideout not bringing home some kind of hardware for the team. He is the real deal and Cal has itself a bonafide star with Hansen. He’s good enough to bring the Bears their first-ever Biletnikoff Award winner. Can Arizona State find a way to slow him down on Saturday night?
The late games in the Pac-12 rarely fail to deliver. Pac-12 After Dark has thrived largely because of teams like Arizona State and Cal grinding it out every week with their style of play. It also adds to the overall intrigue of the conference. The standard-bearers all have their own style of play and Cal’s is probably the last style you want to see on Saturday night at 7 p.m. Think your team is tired now? Wait until after they’ve defended 70+ passes from this Cal offense.
Sparky has been a rollercoaster of emotions in the Pac-12 under Graham. They always look like they’re ready to turn that corner, but then they repeatedly get in their own way. If Graham is going to turn the Sun Devils into the contender he believes them to be, then getting a win over Cal is a great way to start that process. With the exception of Colorado, almost every one of ASU’s next opponents played on or around New Year’s Day last year.
Too much to do and not enough time to prepare for it all, Sparky.
Prediction: Cal 47, Arizona State 45
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.