On Saturday, Arizona State marched into Sun Devil Stadium making it known a win in the Territorial Cup was a necessity not only for the fans of the program, but to honor its senior class.
And in a combined Senior Day and rivalry week matchup for ASU (6-5, 4-4 in Pac-12), the Sun Devils not only got a 52-37 win – improving ASU head coach Todd Graham’s record against the Arizona Wildcats to 3-1 – but also secured bowl eligibility by picking up their sixth win of the year.
Until Graham, no coach has been to a bowl game in his first four seasons at ASU and the Sun Devils haven’t gone to four-straight bowl games under any coach since the early 1970s with Frank Kush.
But with ASU coming off a big rivalry win in a game that’s usually played as the last regular season game, the Sun Devils are stuck with the possibility of having a post-rivalry week letdown when they go on the road to play California (6-5, 3-5) on Saturday.
With so much hype that surrounded ASU’s matchup against the Wildcats after ASU lost the Territorial Cup last year in Tucson, Graham said to some fans, ASU’s win against the Wildcats was going to be worth five regular season home games and the most important win of the entire season.
“It was definitely a game we had to win because that was a big game for this program, not just the players, but all the alumni who has been through here so it was a big win for us,” ASU senior cornerback Kweishi Brown said. “Coming into the game we prepared really well for it. We knew what we were going against from last year and we just didn’t give them the plays they had last year this year so we dominated.”
But heading on the road to Berkeley, Calif., for the first time since 2012 and playing a team led by standout junior quarterback Jared Goff, the Sun Devils can’t afford to have any sort of lapse against the Golden Bears, who are also seeking their seventh win of the season and their own win on Senior Day.
ASU hasn’t won on the road since its 38-23 win over UCLA in Pasadena on Oct. 3.
Last week Cal played Stanford at Stanford in their rivalry game and despite Goff’s 386-yard, two-touchdown performance, lost 35-22. And as the Bears prepare to play their final game of the regular season against the Sun Devils on Saturday, there will be more at stake than claiming a seventh win.
“Two very, very good football teams going at it,” Graham said. “It's going to be their Senior Day. It's going to be their last home game. So they're going to have a lot of those emotions. And they're coming off their big rivalry game with Stanford. This is all about who wants it. We've got to want it and get back up, and I know these guys will rise to the occasion.”
After starting 4-0 on the season, Cal – which finished 5-7, (3-6) last year – was ranked No. 24 in the country before facing a Washington State team led by sophomore quarterback Luke Falk. After beating WSU 34-28 in Berkeley, No. 23 Cal went to play No. 5 Utah, but lost 30-24, starting off their four-game losing streak in the middle stretch of its season.
The Bears’ 54-24 win against Oregon State on Nov. 14 broke their losing streak at four, after ending up on the wrong side of the score against Utah, UCLA, USC and Oregon. Cal will now look to rebound again against ASU on Saturday.
But Senior Day for the Bears will not only be a farewell to the seniors – like ASU heavily preached for Saturday’s game against Arizona – but also more than likely a farewell to Goff, who as a junior faces a decision on whether to enter the 2016 NFL Draft or return for his senior season with Cal.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback is No. 2 in the Pac-12 in passing average per game with 387.8, is completing 70.7 percent of his passes, and has thrown for 36 touchdowns. Goff also has 28 250-yard passing performances and 19 300-yard passing performances, both school records at Cal.
“He’s smart, he makes good decisions,” ASU defensive backs coach Chris Ball said. “He’s got a great arm. Very accurate. Is mobile. Can move around and can give himself some time. Just from top to bottom just an all around really good quarterback.”
Goff’s draft stock has continued to fly up the charts despite Cal dropping four in a row after starting 5-0 to open the season. Experts have Goff going early in the first round along with other top-rated quarterbacks such as Paxton Lynch from Memphis and Connor Cook from Michigan State.
If Goff choose to forego his senior season, he will be following in the footsteps former Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who after leading the Bears to a 10-1 regular season record in 2004, decided to bypass his final year of eligibility and enter the 2005 NFL Draft. The Green Bay Packers chose Rodgers as the 24th pick in the first round.
And while Goff is averaging 397.8 passing yards per game, Cal doesn’t have one clear No. 1 receiving target, but rather a collection of players it likes to throw the football too.
The Bears boast three different receivers who average 50-plus yards per game and two additional receivers who average 40-plus yards per game. Junior wide receiver Kenny Lawler leads the team with 10 touchdowns, averaging 12.2 receiving yards per catch and 51.1 yards per game.
“They got some good receivers,” Brown said. “They have a solid receiving corps, but we got a solid DB (defensive backs) corps so we match up pretty well, but as long as we are physical with them and dominate them up front, I don’t see why we won’t win.”
Cal senior wide receiver Bryce Treggs is No.10 in the Pac-12 for receiving yards per game, averaging 60.5 yards off 3.3 receptions per game. Treggs now has 2,216 receiving yards, moving to eighth on Cal’s career list.
“We're playing the best quarterback we've played all year long,” Graham said regarding Goff. “I think we're playing the best receiving corps maybe we've played all year long, with maybe the exception of USC. I think these guys are very much in the same regard as far as their talent at receiver. So they're very, very capable of scoring points and got a lot of respect for (Cal head) coach (Sonny) Dykes. They're a very well coached team. They've lost a lot of close games.”
In addition to a balanced passing attack, the Bears also have a balanced rushing attack with four running backs that average over 30 rushing yards per game and together account for 13 of Cal’s touchdowns on the year.
“They got four running backs that are all different sizes and skill sets so they are very balanced in all that,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “You not only have to account for those guys out of the backfield with the screens and the passing game, but you also have to be able to throw the ball and run the ball to keep you honest.”
But while Goff has a good arsenal of weapons around him, offensive turnovers have been a major negative in the season. Against Utah, Goff threw five interceptions, but still threw for 340 yards on 25 of 47 passing attempts. Goff has thrown at least one interception in all but two of Cal’s games this season.
With these numbers from Goff, Cal is No.2 in the conference for interceptions with 14, however Goff also has thrown for at least two touchdowns in each of the Bears’ 11 games this seasons.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Brown said. “We got to get the ball on defense and we got to score on offense. But most importantly defense has to do their job and if we do that, I don’t see why we won’t win.”
Going against a turnover-happy quarterback, ASU could have to opportunity to capitalize like it has in its past two games after being unable to generate as many turnovers earlier in the season.
Against Arizona, the Sun Devils were able to force the Wildcats into three turnovers and against Washington on Nov. 14 ASU generated four.
In addition to forcing more turnovers, ASU is now No. 2 in tackles for loss in the country with 98, 10 more than any Pac-12 team. The Sun Devils’ 44 sacks is No. 1 in the nation after tying the team’s season-high of eight sacks against Arizona.
Brown said first and foremost, the key going into Saturday’s game will be to pressure Goff as much as possible and then play smart and assignment-sound football on the back-end.
In addition to being turnover-prone, Cal’s red zone defense ranks No. 11 in the Pac-12, allowing opponents to score 35 out of 38 times in the end zone.
The Sun Devils have struggled in the red zone, still No. 8 in the Pac-12, scoring 42 out of 50 times, but ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has a positive outlook for the rest of the season after seeing the offensive vertical game open up with ASU senior wide receiver Devin Lucien on Saturday.
“For us it’s just continuing to focus on the execution,” Norvell said. “I thought we did a good job of taking what the defense gave us (against Arizona).
“I think we’re getting better very week. I think that you’ve seen that you’ve seen flashes whether it was the Oregon game, Colorado, Oregon, I think parts of every game you’re seeing that improvement.”