By Juan Roque for DieHardDevil.com
The journey of a student-athlete at Arizona State University is a special one. It begins with a trek to Tempe where the athlete moves into university housing, meets new people, makes new friends, aligns with new teammates, adjusts to new coaches and learns their way around campus. It’s a very important part of the experience because it teaches the athlete what it’s going to take to not only succeed in the classroom but in their sport as well. For football players, that journey begins even earlier as they report two to three weeks before school begins to start preparation for the season. Then the pressure mounts, because in a very short time, the freshman has to make an impression on the coaching staff that will result in him either playing right away or starting the season as a redshirt.
Regardless of how those first few weeks go, the long journey ends for everyone with a final game at Sun Devil Stadium. The final game always brings an onset of emotion and nostalgia for the young men who play for ASU. Every senior takes the field for the last time with their eyes tearing up, heart racing and goose bumps on their skin wondering if it truly is over for their career. The final home game is a climax of four or five years of hard work: studying, practice, films, games, conditioning and attending class. This will be the case for 27 Sun Devils on Friday night. It will be their final time running through the Tillman Tunnel and onto Frank Kush Field to play a game in front of the home crowd. It will be an emotional night for these young men as they start to conclude their careers at ASU. Once that reality hits, they will undoubtedly wonder where the previous four or five years went.
There is no question that 2011 has been a major disappointment for this group of Sun Devils. Only twenty five days ago they were ranked #19, were 6-2 and heading to Pasadena to face a UCLA Bruins team that was coming off of a huge win against Cal, but two weeks removed from an embarrassing loss at Arizona. For ASU everything was going right; they only had to win two out of four games to clinch the Pac-12 South and advance to the title game. Many around the program and the nation felt that ASU had put the toughest part of the schedule behind them and were now ready to go on a run and begin dominating the opposition. The remaining schedule looked to favor the Sun Devils and with a 48-14 drubbing of Colorado following their bye week, it was obvious ASU was healthy and ready to finish the season strong. Many were expecting ASU to be 9-2 at this point of the season and getting ready to win their tenth game which hadn’t been done in Tempe since 2007.
Unfortunately it was all a mirage, a fallacy and Fool’s Gold all rolled up into one big letdown as ASU went on a three game losing streak. Each loss was more disappointing than the last, as ASU lost to UCLA 29-28, to Wazzu 37-27 and then to Arizona 31-27. Each loss was a continuation of the prior game as if ASU was stuck in a bad dream for three straight weeks. At UCLA, the Sun Devils forgot how to cover and were torched by Kevin Prince. They carried that into Pullman where a freshman quarterback threw for 494 yards and three touchdowns on a cold and snowy night. Then came the unthinkable; a home loss to 2-8 Arizona when the Sun Devils were favored by 10 ½ and were clearly the better team. The Sun Devils now sit at 6-5 wondering how it all unraveled in less than four weeks. One obvious issue during the three game skid is the Sun Devils made fundamental mistakes. Little things that should not be issues for a Pacific 12 football player like poor tackling, broken coverage, sound blocking on offense, dropped passes, missed assignments, missed kicks and bone headed penalties have been the norm lately. In all three games, one of these areas would break down and be the lynch pin for defeat. Despite heroic efforts by players like senior receiver Gerell Robinson and continued leadership from Brock Osweiler, ASU fell fast and hard.
Facing the Sun Devils this Friday in their last home game of the 2011 season are the Golden Bears of California. Recently, things have been a tough go in Berkley. Cal head coach Jeff Tedford is another Pac-12 leader who is fighting to keep his job after a subpar season in 2010. The Bears limped to a 5-7 record despite being a veteran team. One bright spot in their season last year was the Bears throttling ASU 50-17 in front of their home crowd. ASU went into Berkley the favorites in that game after Cal had been blown out by USC 48-14 in Los Angeles. Cal was nearly flawless on defense that afternoon forcing three turnovers and holding ASU to 57 yards rushing. On offense, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley threw for two touchdowns one being a 52 yard bomb on a broken coverage. It was Cal’s best performance of the season to that point.
This season, Cal was displaced in having to play their games off campus due to stadium renovations, but the Bears were determined to bounce back after their dismal 2010 season. They began the 2011 campaign at 3-0 before going into a showdown with Washington in Seattle. In that contest the Huskies beat the Bears 31-23 and started a three game losing streak in which the Bears lost to Oregon and USC in the subsequent two weeks. However, the last three weeks, including the loss to the Cardinal, the Bears have been playing much better football and look like a different team than the one that was dominated by UCLA 31-14 on October 29. In their annual Big Game against Stanford last week, they rallied late with strong offensive and defensive performances and almost pulled off an upset . With their current record also at 6-5 the Bears are looking to not only get to seven wins but position themselves for a post season invitation and save their coach’s job.
Meet the Cal offense
The Bears run multiple sets which are characteristic of their coach Jeff Tedford. They will use a Pro-Style then go into multiple receiver sets that resemble a Spread. They have a well rounded playbook and it all is centered on the play of their quarterback. Junior Zach Maynard leads the Cal offense and recently has started to play up to his ability. The junior transfer from Buffalo outclassed Heisman Candidate Andrew Luck last week in the Big Game which they lost. Maynard was impressive in the game completing 20 of 30 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He was smart with the football, not throwing any interceptions and is also a run threat out of the pocket. On the season, Maynard has completed 193 passes on 347 attempts for 2,565 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The run game is a big key to Cal’s offense. The Bears boast one of the best running backs in the conference in junior tailback Isi Sofele. Sofele is not a big back being 5’8”and 190 pounds, but he plays the game with passion and he is fast and shifty. He hits the hole quickly and shows surprising strength when running in traffic. He is the catalyst of the offense and already has put up impressive numbers in 2011. Last week against Cal, he ran 21 times for 96 yards with a 4.4 yard per carry average. On the season he has run 211 times for 1,171 yards, 8 touchdowns and a 5.3 yard per carry average. Leading the way for Sofele in the Pro Style formations is fullback John Tyndall. The 6’3” 240 pound Tyndall is a load and can knock defenders backwards in the run game.
At the skill positions, the Bears have speed and talent that can break games open. Sophomore Keenan Allen is another one of the “big” Pac-12 receivers that can out jump and out run defenders in the passing game. Allen uses his 6’3” frame to get position on cornerbacks and has great instinct for the football in the boundary. Allen is Maynard’s half brother and is his favorite target with 84 receptions for 1,200 yards, six touchdowns, 109.1 yards per game average and a 14.3 yard per catch average. Last week against the Cardinal he caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. Opposite Allen is another big receiver in Marvin Jones. Jones, also 6’3” is a dangerous player who has great technique running his routes and has great hands. In his final year in Berkley he’s caught 49 passes for 704 yards and three touchdowns. Tight End Anthony Miller is the third best receiver on this team and is another big target for Maynard. The 6’4” 260 pound senior has 21 catches for 244 yards and three touchdowns.
Cal has experience on the offensive line as well as size. Left tackle Mitchell Schwartz is huge at 6’6” 318 pounds. He is very agile for his size which allows him to use his body to negate defenders in the passing game. In the run game he is good at staying low and firing off to drive his opponent off the ball. Right guard Justin Cheadle is a good one as well who plays with great technique. Combined, the Cal offensive line has a total of 140 starts.
How ASU matches up
After three weeks of being dominated at the line of scrimmage it will not get any easier on Friday for ASU. Cal has a big line and fullback and will take the “Ground and Pound” approach to open up the perimeter for their big receivers. This is a game that is going to be determined by the Front Seven and their ability to stop the run game. With missed assignments, coverage and tackles plaguing the defense, the only way to stop the bleeding is to stuff Cal’s running game. Zach Maynard is still green in the offense and while he was been vastly improved the past few weeks he is still prone to being disrupted. Defensive Coordinator Craig Bray needs to do something different this week to get pressure on Maynard. Last week, Arizona’s Nick Foles had too much time to make plays and it hurt ASU in the second half when they scored two touchdowns on passing plays to take the lead. Bray needs to find a way to best utilize his personnel this week to get to Maynard.
This week is going to be a test for the defensive backs after getting lit up for three weeks in a row. Cal has big and fast receivers and a good tight end. It’s going to be critical that the backs prepare well and learn what the Bears’ tendencies are. They are going to have to play smart and not allow themselves to get out of position. The mental part of the game is also going to be huge Friday. Mental breakdowns lead to big plays for the offense. This unit needs to settle down, read their keys and play the game with sound technique. They also have to tackle well when a pass is completed to avoid any garbage yardage that helps the offense move the chains.
Mentally, the Sun Devils need to play this game clean and not allow the referees to flag them like they did last week. While the pass interference in the end zone during Arizona’s first drive was iffy the remaining penalties were not. ASU needs to be disciplined and not make dumb mistakes that keep drives alive and end in points for Cal. They need to get back to basics and execute their fundamentals if they are to have a chance at shutting down the Cal offense. They also need to force Cal into mistakes so that they can get the ball back. With only three turnovers in the last three games, including none last week, they need to find a way to get the ball back into the hands of the offense.
Key Matchup: ASU defense vs. themselves
Meet the Bear defense
Cal is coming to Tempe fielding one of the top defenses in the Pac-12. They employ a variety of schemes under former Cardinals coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast uses multiple alignments ranging from the 3-4 Zone Blitz Pro Style to the standard 4-3, and will even put five men on the line in a true 50 look. The variety has paid off for the Bears as they lead the Pac-12 in total defense giving up 326.91 yards per game and rank first in pass defense yielding 204.09 yards per game. Cal ranks nationally in the same categories at 21st and 40th in those respectively. The Bears also lead the league and are ranked seventh nationally in tackles for loss with 7.9 per game. Overall, the Bears rank fourth in the conference in total defense. Without question, this is the strength of the team and it boasts not only talent but play making ability in its personnel.
The strength in the Cal defense, as in any Zone Blitz defensive scheme, is the linebackers. Cal boasts two of the league’s best in Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt. Kendricks is a multi talented player who can stop the run, rush the passer and drop into coverage. In 2011, the senior leader has made 88 tackles, 11 for loss, two sacks, two pass break ups and has recovered a fumble. Last week, Kendricks had a huge game against Stanford making 13 tackles and sacking Andrew Luck one time. Holt is also a very good defender and is second behind Kendricks in tackles with 80. Holt also has two sacks on the year to go along with his 9 tackles for loss and two pass break ups.
Up front, the Cal bears have two outstanding defensive ends who can disrupt the opposing team’s run and pass game. Defensive end Earnest Owusu is active along the front with 26 tackles, 7.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks in 2011. He plays hard and will not allow himself to stay blocked. He uses his 6’5” frame very well defending passes, knocking down two in 2011. Trevor Guyton is the premier player on the defensive line. In 2011 Guyton has made 39 tackles, 10 for loss, 4.5 sacks and has recovered two fumbles. He is a “motor” player who will play until the whistle blows. Nose Guard Aaron Tipoti is a load and uses up two blockers but also has made 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season.
In the secondary the Bears are big, can cover and have speed. The best player in the secondary is senior free safety Sean Cattouse. Cattouse is an outstanding player who could get All Pac-12 recognition in 2011. He looks more like linebacker playing safety being 6’3” 218 pounds. The senior leads the secondary tackles with 67. Last week against Stanford he had a big game in making 13 tackles. On the perimeter, Cal has two very good corners in Marc Anthony and Josh Hill. Anthony is a big corner at 6’2” and can keep up with any receiver in the conference. For the season, Anthony has 42 tackles, a sack and an interception. Hill is also very active breaking up 9 passes to go with his 29 tackles.
How ASU matches up
This defense is going to be a big time challenge for ASU. With the multiple alignments the Bears will throw at the Sun Devils, this game is going to come down to discipline, preparation and being able to make adjustments during the game. All things that ASU has had a hard time with in the past three weeks. It will all start with the offensive line. This unit has been a huge factor in Cameron Marshall not being able to break the 1,000 yard rushing plateau this season. The Hell Hogs have just been awful in the running game. They have one final opportunity at home to change that trend before the post season. They will need to be very sound technically and mentally if they are to have any shot at winning this game. They will need to fire off the ball, engage the Bear defenders and get movement off of the line of scrimmage. Cal makes their living tackling runners and receivers behind the line of scrimmage so it’s vital that this unit not allow the defensive line and linebackers to penetrate into the backfield. In the passing game, they are going to have to account for the fifth or sixth man that blitzes from either the outside linebacker position or from the inside. They have to be prepared for the Bears doing things they haven’t yet shown on film.
Brock Osweiler had a rough start and finish last week and needs to be at his best Friday if ASU plans on leaving Sun Devil Stadium victorious. He needs to be smart with the football, make better decisions and put the ball where only his receivers can catch it. Cal has big athletic secondary players who can jump with the receivers, so he needs to be laser accurate if he is to avoid cheap turnovers. At the same time, the ASU receivers need to make plays on the ball when they get their opportunities. They will need to be very precise in their routes and need to be physical when they are run blocking to open up the secondary for Marshall, Miles or other backs running the football.
Despite the let downs and head scratching losses, ASU still has an opportunity to advance to the title game. Surprising as it may seem, due to USC not being eligible, there is a possible three way tie for first place if: ASU wins, UCLA loses and Utah wins. ASU then holds the cards and will win the South. None of that is important though because ASU has to win a football game before they can even be in that conversation. Although a simple concept, it’s something they haven’t been able to do since before Halloween when they routed Colorado. If they plan on beating Cal, the Sun Devil players and coaches cannot commit the sins of the past three weeks which have crippled them. The team needs to be ready mentally and physically to play a full 60 minute game. The Bears are not going to lay down and will fight and claw themselves to get the win. After three straight losses, ASU is reeling and Cal is on the upswing playing with more confidence after almost taking down Stanford on the Cardinal’s home field. They will come into Sun Devil Stadium hungry to end conference play on a high note as they go into the postseason. Rest assured, this will be a great game as both teams are fighting for not only survival but respect. Win one for the Sun Devil seniors.
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