Another week, another Air Raid offense that will come into Sun Devil Stadium and test an Arizona State secondary that is last in passing yards allowed in the nation.
Through three games this season, ASU is giving up 379.3 passing yards, which is 33.3 yards worse than the next worst passing defense, No. 127, Akron. Only 12 defenses are giving up more than 300 passing yards per game.
Last season, ASU finished last in passing defense, allowing 337.8 yards per game. That was 24 yards more than Indiana, which finished next to last.
California will come to Tempe on Saturday ranked second in the nation in passing offense with 453.0 yards per game. The Bears have a 2-1 record after beating then-No.11 Texas 50-43 last week.
The last time ASU played the Bears was on Nov. 28 and Cal stormed back for a 21-point comeback victory after ASU’s defense crumbled against former Cal quarterback and No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff.
Senior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said this year’s Cal team is even better than last year’s squad that went 8-5 and made its first bowl game appearance since 2011.
“Their basis is pretty much the same,” Smallwood said. “They have another good quarterback and then they have pretty much the same offensive line and they lost a lot of receivers, but their receivers are doing good so it’s pretty much the same Cal team and I think they are better than last year.”
Despite last year’s last-minute loss to the Bears, ASU sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr said the game is behind them and they are looking ahead to this week’s matchup.
“Defensively we just stick to the game plan, you know (ASU head) coach (Todd) Graham and his coaching staff will come out with a game plan and we will stick to it and not change it,” senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes said.
Led by Texas Tech grad transfer quarterback Davis Webb, the Bears will travel to Tempe for the first time since 2011. Hayes said Webb is not as fast compared to a quarterback like Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, but he will move around in the pocket a lot and is very accurate throwing the ball. Mahomes and Webb are the No. 1 and No. 2 passing quarterbacks in the country, respectively.
ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said both Mahomes and Webb can “make any throw on the field, but Mahomes might have a little bit better legs than Webb.”
“Both quarterbacks can pick you apart,” Rushing said. “They both have good arm strength and a good group of wide receivers. Difference is Cal, they will run the ball. They run the more a little bit more than Texas Tech would and they are physical about it. They got a more physical nature to their offense than Tech did so you got to be prepared to stop both.”
Echoing Rushing's comments about Cal’s trio of running backs -- junior running back Vic Enwere, senior running back Khalfani Muhammad and junior running back Tre Watson -- Smallwood said the biggest challenge will be containing the backs catching passes out of the backfield.
“They are an Air Raid team, but they have good backs too,” Smallwood said. “They try to run the ball and their running game has gotten better and they utilize that now so especially with No. 99 (sophomore fullback Malik McMorris) in the backfield blocking for them, they have good backs who can run the ball, but also they can catch it out of the backfield so it just makes them more versatile and tougher.”
Not only are the Sun Devils familiar with Cal and its Air Raid offensive style, but some players played against Webb when Texas Tech defeated ASU 37-23 in the 2013 Holiday Bowl.
Webb leads the nation this season in passing attempts (166), second in in passing touchdowns (13), passing yards (1,359), passing yards per game (453.0 yards per game), completions (106) and completions per game (35.33 completions per game).
“He (Webb) was actually the same quarterback we played in the Holiday Bowl,” senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola said. “Very capable of one play touchdowns. He’s a good guy to run their offense, he gets everyone lined up and everything. They are a really talented offense.”
Earning Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP honors, Webb threw for 403 yards and tied the Holiday Bowl record with four touchdown passes.
With Webb at the helm of Cal’s offense this season, players have been comparing the Bears offensive style to Texas Tech. ASU beat the Red Raiders 68-55 in week two.
“They run the same offense as Texas Tech so we are going back and watching the Texas Tech film and we know they are going to hit us with our weakness that the other teams hit us with, like NAU and we are going back and looking at our mistakes and practicing on our mistakes because we know what is going to come,” junior college transfer safety J'Marcus Rhodes said.
Rushing said Cal tends to wear defenses out with all the bubble screens the offense runs and the key in the secondary will be eye control and discipline.
“They bait you in to do someone else’s job, for you to come up and make a tackle that is not your responsibility and then they throw it over your head,” Rushing said. “Our guys have to be disciplined this weekend and do their job and take that away.”
Cal ranks third in the nation in total offense with 580.3 yards per game and 10th nationally in scoring offense at 47 points per game.
“All that motion and stuff is just to get your eyes to go one way and come back the other way,” Rushing said. “Our guys have to be disciplined in their training and trust what we’ve been telling them to do throughout the week.”
Echoing Rushing, Smallwood said because Cal likes to throw a lot of quick passes, ASU’s game plan going in will be focused on the effort up front.
“We are going to have to run down the line and we are just going to have to trust our reads,” Smallwood said. “The offensive line leads us to the ball so we just have to trust our reads and as soon as we see that we have to haul to the ball and make sure we make the tackle.”
As far as pressuring Webb, Smallwood said on film the Sun Devils have seen Webb’s tendency to hold the ball a little longer than normal and those are the plays where the defensive line will really have to persist and push back.
“We have to keep coming hard and the faster we get off the ball the quicker we see the offensive lineman leave and the quicker we will see things,” Smallwood said. “Nothing really changes for us up front, we just have to know, we know with their game plan the ball is going to come out quicker so it’s just the quicker we are going to have to react and chase the ball. Same thing with rushing the passer.”
While Cal lost its top six receivers this season, Webb has no shortage of players to choose from and his favorite target so far this season has been junior Cal wide receiver Chad Hansen.
“The coordinator, head coach has done a good job recruiting and once you saw that last year, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, they’re good they lost all their receivers and this year you’re like, ‘Golly, they just reloaded with guys,’ and that’s just what the Pac-12 does,” Rushing said. “There is no shorter of good players now because the high school talent is so good.”
Through three games, Hansen has 40 receptions for 546 yards and five touchdowns. His 182 yards per game average leads the country and is more than three times the average of Cal’s next leading receiver.
“Style-wise he plays like a kid who has a huge chip on his shoulder and is out to prove to everybody that, you all missed out and 'You all should have recruited me,’ and that’s how he plays,” Rushing said. “Whether it’s a run or a pass, he’s a competitive dude and he goes all out every time. He will be a good challenge for us.”
While Cal’s offense is similar to Texas Tech's, to an extent so is its defense, according to ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen.
“They are somewhat similar, but they are different,” Thomsen said. “Front-wise they are somewhat similar. Tech probably mixes it up more, but it’s just this game, not a lot of, they are going to play defense and we are going to line up and you got to, whoever is the most physical in this game is going to win, like most weeks and so our guys are looking forward to it. It’s going to be a heck of a game.”
Texas Tech runs a lot of 3-3-5 fronts with three down linemen in the trenches and one dedicated pass rusher, a little different to what the Bears do with their defensive linemen in a 4-2-5 base nickel. The Bears don't flip their front, play with four down linemen, and often have eight men stacking the box.
Cal defensive lineman Cameron Saffle leads the defensive line group with 20 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss through three games.
The Bears have only recorded five sacks so far this season, yet ASU senior offensive lineman Evan Goodman praised Cal’s defense, calling them “great” and saying any player on its front seven is capable of having a breakout game. Cal doesn't bring a lot of pressure across the line and instead the defense runs a lot of zone coverage in the secondary.
“The players they have, they are athletes, they are flying to the ball, making tackles, making one-on-one tackles, but yeah they make one-on-one tackles and open field tackles in space,” Goodman said. “Really good players. All of them, the front seven are really good players. They are athletic, hard-nosed players.”
Despite the talent on the Bears’ roster, they are last in the Pac-12 in rushing defense at 296.7 yards per game and are last in scoring defense in conference, averaging 39.7 points per game.
However despite the stats, Thomsen said Cal’s defensive staff will be ready come Saturday, especially since they are led by Cal defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, who Thomsen has coached with and knows well.
“I mean Art Kaufman and (Cal cornerbacks coach) John Lovett been coaching forever you know, both those guys are 30-35 years at the highest level of football and (Cal defensive line coach) Fred Tate does a good job on the d-line and (Cal safeties coach Fred) Burns was here,” Thomsen said. “That’s a tremendous staff. We got to be ready. They will find ways to stop the run. I’ve coached with Art, he knows how to jam some signs up so we have to take advantage of everything.”
In the second half of Cal’s 50-43 win against Texas, the Bears’ defense specifically made some adjustments on some of the fits in the run game as well as in the alignments on how they were going to play certain sets and will look to continue those adjustments against ASU’s rushing attack.
ASU running backs coach John Simon said he believes Cal has established themselves on defense this year and they have been consistent with their vision and what they want to do schematically, despite their struggling run defense.
“I think they utilize the talented skill set that they have and I think they do a solid job on defense,” Simon said. “I think they have some playmakers out there. I think they play physical and guys up front play fundamentally sound and they do a good job. I think we have to match their play and win a physical ball game.”
Emphasizing the physicality of his players, Thomsen said the keys to going against Cal’s defense, or any other team, will not only be for ASU to establish the run game, but also run the offense properly.
“We aren’t just going to pound it in there every time,” Thomsen said. “We want to run the offense and operate, kind of like we did against Tech. Take advantage of the whole field and I coached against these guys, I mean I coached with this defensive staff at Texas Tech and they do a tremendous job.”
ASU tight end Kody Kohl said he expects ASU running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage to both “go off every single game” and the Cal game should be no different with ASU establishing the run early and dominating the point of attack.
“I mean, they run really hard,” Kohl said. “They take hits and they give the hits out so if we keep pushing up from they should get more yards every game.”
As far his thoughts on Cal, Kohl said he believes they have a good front and “a pretty solid team that is athletic.”
“Very talented team,” ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins said. “Very fast. Their DBs (defensive backs) are very long, we’re anxious. We know what they are going to do.”
The Bears already have four interceptions, good for No. 2 in the Pac-12 behind Utah with six. Cal’s pass defense ranks in the middle of the Pac-12 at No. 6, allowing 208 yards through the air per game.
Senior safety Khari Vanderbilt leads Cal in tackles through three games with 22 and one tackle for loss. Against Texas, Vanderbilt had 10 tackles and one tackle for loss.
“Texas beat themselves in my opinion,” Kohl said regarding Cal’s victory over Texas last week. “I think Texas is a better team. They had some turnovers and they had some holding penalties and they didn’t play as physical as they should. We just need to play more physical than they did.”
Simon said going into week four there is no more excuses for either team, as both teams have gone through some rough patches, but now that ASU and Cal have gotten the chance to work out some of the mistakes after three weeks, he knows Cal will “bring everything they have on defense,” on Saturday.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for both teams to set the tone,” Simon said. “I mean they are coming off an awesome victory against a No. 11 opponent (Texas) a Power 5, a top-15 team in the country and for them to get that victory and then go into conference play they have to be feeling good about themselves and we are sitting 3-0 and we are feeling good about ourselves.”null