SunDevilSource: How has this season's performance for Cal been relative to its own expectations and the expectations of its fans?
Ryan Gorcey: It’s been a disappointment, frankly. This was a team who I thought could win eight, maybe nine games, with the talent it has in its receiving corps, and of course at quarterback with Jared Goff. The loss to Utah, at the time, seemed a fluke. It was the worst game of Goff’s life – with five pick – and it didn’t look like it would be the start to a big downturn. But, we saw the same kind of turn at midseason last year, and while the team has been competitive, it’s hard not to think that this team thought a bit too much of itself, and when reality set in, they collapsed, at least emotionally. That said, they got things done against Oregon State, and, barring some curious game-calling, conservative play and execution issues in the red zone, they could very well have beaten Stanford. But, these are all hypotheticals. Bottom line: Cal is on its way to a six-maybe-seven-win season at this point, and if the Bears can beat ASU, eight, but this is a season that could have been very special, and it’s not been that.
SunDevilSource: Cal won its first five games and since then has lost five of six. What are the main reasons for this?
Gorcey: The oldest reason in the book: Turnover battle. The Bears started turning the ball over with alarming regularity, while the defense stopped producing the kinds of turnovers they had over the first five games of the season. The defense not being able to get the ball back limited offensive possessions already, and when you have the offense coughing the ball up, that limits offensive possessions even further, and that makes your margin for error on both sides of the ball super-thin. Opponents have gained 11 turnovers over the past six games, while Cal has come up with six. Over the first five, the Bears tallied 18 turnovers, while opponents gained 10. Obviously, Cal has faced tougher competition – five of their past six opponents have been ranked in the top 25 for multiple weeks this season, as opposed to one of their previous five – but the feast-or-famine defense, plus an inconsistent offense that was thought to be the centerpiece of this team, has really hurt the Bears over the past seven weeks.
SunDevilSource: Jared Goff is a tremendous talent at quarterback and Cal's receivers are very good as well. The Golden Bears are second in total offense but fifth in scoring offense in the Pac-12. Should they be an even more potent team?
Gorcey: Absolutely. The Bear Raid is built on the Tony Franklin System – an offense sold by Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin to high schools across the country – and it’s based largely on the passing game, but, it does have flaws. Running isn’t the system’s strong suit, despite Franklin’s background as a running back, and partly because of that, it’s notoriously inconsistent in the red zone, where, Franklin says, there just isn’t as much grass as there is in the midfield, between the 20s. That being said, over the first five games of the year, the Bears got into the red zone 30 times, and scored touchdowns nine times, going 5-0. In the past six games, when Cal’s gone 1-5, the Bears has gotten into the red zone 23 times, scoring touchdowns 14 times, so, again: red zone success has been unpredictable. Back to the run game, though: Cal has been incredibly inconsistent on the ground this year, running for 307 yards on 46 carries against Oregon State, and just 98 against Stanford on 23 carries. When the offense is more equitable in the run and the pass, Cal is a better offense, but tilting heavily to the pass – as Cal did last week, with 55 passing attempts – is not, despite Cal’s talent on the outside, a recipe for success, especially if Goff has to hurry passes against Arizona State’s blitz.
SunDevilSource: What are the main areas in which Cal is susceptible to ASU on offense and defense?
Gorcey: At this point, without Damariay Drew and Griffin Piatt – veteran safeties – to help plug the run gaps, I’d say that Arizona State’s run game – particularly Mike Bercovici pulling the ball down and running – would be concerning. Cal’s linebackers have had such a tough time with run fits against spread-to-run teams, and it seems like that’s what they’re going to face this weekend.
Offensively, I just don’t know how Cal’s line will respond against the blitz. They performed quite well against Stanford on Saturday, obviously dominated Oregon State the week before, and against USC, had a great game, thanks to the help from the two backs Cal kept in the backfield, but we haven’t seen that wrinkle since. If we see it again, this weekend would be the time, in order to give Goff an extra back to help pick up the blitz. That said, it could come at the expense of the run game. The Bears becoming unbalanced because of the blitz is a concern, especially because if they go to the air, they won’t have the deep routes down field open, and that’s where some of their best weapons – Bryce Treggs and Trevor Davis – are going to be. We also don’t know about the health of downfield threat Kenny Lawler, though I’d be surprised if he plays much.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction?
Gorcey: I can definitely see this game being a weird one. You have two Jekyll-and-Hyde teams, each of whom just played their rival, and each of whom is already bowl eligible. Cal’s defense has been so predicated on the turnover, and over the past four games, the Bears have two. At the same time, they’ve coughed the ball up five times in that same period. As the Sun Devils showed last week, giving them extra possessions is a dangerous proposition. Arizona gave up three possessions to ASU, and the Sun Devils scored 14 points on the Wildcats. But, Arizona’s quarterback situation was, to say the least, unsettled.
Before his five picks against Utah, Jared Goff had thrown four all season, and he’s thrown just four since. He threw just seven as a sophomore, and 10 as a freshman. If he’s pressured, he throws the ball away, more often than not, but that Arizona State blitz can’t be ignored. Cal needs to be able to run the ball consistently to take pressure off of Goff, and with Daniel Lasco not likely to play on Saturday, Tre Watson is going to have to step up, as he’s done over the past two games, with 195 total rushing yards.
I think this is going to be a 34-28 game, and while I have a feeling Cal’s offense will be taken aback by the blitzing, after facing such a vanilla defense against Stanford, I do think that the Bears will fix their execution issues in the red zone, and once they do that, I think the offense will finally click again. I’m not entirely confident, though, in that prediction.