The Arizona State Sun Devils begin conference play on Saturday with a home game against the Cal Bears, a team to which they lost in heart breaking fashion last season. This year’s match-up should be a good one as well, with footballstudyhall.com having ASU and Cal ranked 49th and 53rd, respectively, in its S&P+ ratings, giving ASU a 59% chance to win. It also marks another game against an Air Raid offense, which the ASU defense has struggled against in recent years.
Cal comes into this game fresh off a victory over the Texas Longhorns, who were ranked #11 at the time. The Bears also have a loss against San Diego State, and a win over Hawaii in Sydney, Australia on the season. This inconsistency is mostly due to being on opposite ends of the spectrum on either side of the ball. Cal has the country’s 11th rated offense, according to the S&P+ ratings, and the 106th rated defense. One unit is good enough to allow them to compete with anybody, and one unit is so bad, they’re capable of losing to anybody. In this week’s Three Tines to Victory, we’ll discuss what ASU needs to do to take advantage of Cal’s inconsistent ways.
First Tine to Victory: Hold Cal to 8 yards per pass attempt
I’ve addressed the Sun Devils’ pass defense every week so far, with good reason – it’s one of the worst in the country, statistically, and each game has been against a team that throws the ball a lot. To change things up this week, I’m being very specific with what I think ASU needs to do to win this game.
Through three games, ASU is giving up 9.25 yards per pass attempt, which ranks near the bottom in the nation. They gave up 10.2 yards per attempt in their victory over Texas Tech two weeks ago, something they won’t likely get away with a second time. Although Cal’s defense is bad, it’s unlikely that ASU’s offense will be able to repeat its performance against Texas Tech.
Cal has a potent passing attack, but there is reason for hope that ASU can hold them under the 8 yards/attempt mark – the Sun Devil pass defense has performed better in short stretches. They held Patrick Mahomes to under 8 yards per attempt in the second half (after giving up more than 12 yards/attempt in the first), and held UTSA to 6.2 yards per attempt for the game. Additionally, Laiu Moeakiola appears to be getting healthier and his increased presence will have a big impact on the Devils’ tendency to have coverage breakdowns.
While I expect Cal to rack up a fair amount of passing yards, if ASU can at least make them work for them, it will give the Sun Devil offense at least a chance to keep pace with Cal, especially if they get a couple of turnovers. This leads us to tine number two.
Second Tine to Victory: Win the turnover battle
The two turnovers ASU forced in the second half against Texas Tech were a huge factor in the win that week, as were the three turnovers they gave up in the near loss to UTSA. With it being unlikely that the ASU defense will shut down the Cal offense, turnovers will be key this week, as well. In order to get Cal to turn the ball over, they’ll need to pressure and confuse quarterback Davis Webb, something they were able to do to Patrick Mahomes in the second half. Webb is not at mobile as Mahomes, nor does he have the same knack for getting rid of the ball quickly. However, he does a good job of avoiding sacks, as Cal’s sack rate is only 4%.
ASU also needs to avoid turning the ball over themselves. In a game where they’ll be hard-pressed to keep up with Cal’s offense, ASU can’t afford to be giving away offensive possessions. Manny Wilkins needs to perform like he did against Texas Tech, when he did not put any balls in jeopardy, and was accurate throwing the ball. Additionally, ASU may benefit from luck catching up to them, as they’ve had bad turnover luck so far (for a definition of turnovers luck, see here).
Third Tine to Victory: Offensive efficiency
As discussed already, the ASU offense will need to keep up with a potent Cal passing offense that may not face much resistance from the ASU defense. An inefficient, inconsistent performance will cost the Devils valuable points, and leave its questionable defense out on the field too long. Fortunately, this is where one of ASU’s strengths aligns perfectly with a glaring Cal weakness.
ASU owns the 17th most efficient offense in the nation, with a success rate of 49.2% (a successful play is one that gets 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down). Cal’s defense is particularly bad at giving up successful plays, at 44.5%, 99th in the country. They are even worse in the run game, giving up successful run plays at a 49.6% rate. If ASU can take advantage of this, and stay on schedule utilizing the run game, it increases the likelihood of Manny Wilkins repeating (or at least coming close to repeating) his performance against Texas Tech, and will keep Cal’s offense off of the field for longer stretches.
The Cal Bears will present a challenge to the Sun Devils on Saturday night, especially to the secondary. If ASU does win, the likelihood is that it won’t look pretty, either. But if ASU can take care of all three tines, I see them winning in a high-scoring game by a touchdown or so.
For more preview information on the Cal game, check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats 12-Pack.