Ten Takeaways: Cal

Arizona State once again used an impressive second-half comeback and 31-point fourth-quarter outburst to beat Cal and improve to 4-0. Here's our 10 takeaways from the game.

1. As has been the case throughout the early portion of the season, Arizona State made key defensive adjustments as the game unfolded that proved essential to its victory over Cal. Part of this was slight scheme adjustment such as different defensive calls against certain formations. On Cal quarterback Davis Webb's second interception, which came with 2:59 left in the game and the Golden Bears trailing 37-34 for the first time, Webb saw what he identified as man coverage on twins to the field side and threw the ball decisively on a slant to his No. 1 receiver. But key ASU defensive player Laiu Moeakiola was in robber coverage aligned over the No. 2 receiver and he slid over from the mirrored slant of the No. 2 receiver to steal that ball away from Webb and Cal's hopes for a win in the process. 

2. Just as much if not more than schematic adjustments, veteran Sun Devils recognized things they'd seen earlier in the game and reacted to those things later in a way that enabled their success. There's no better example of this than the interception by senior linebacker Salamo Fiso that came with the score knotted at 34 with just over six minutes left in the game. Cal had run the same play successfully earlier in the game, stretching two receiving options on diagonal routes to stress ASU's underneath zone coverage. When they went back to it again in the fourth quarter, ASU's linebackers reacted differently. Junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun widened out the route of the intended target, while Moeakiola moved earlier on the rep to the decoy target in a way that enabled Fiso to slide toward the likely throw earlier in the rep and undercut it to make the interception of senior Cal quarterback Davis Webb

3. Moeakiola is simply invaluable to ASU at the Spur position. The Sun Devils are going to face a dilemma they haven't had to yet this season as soon as junior linebacker Christian Sam is able to return from his ankle sprain, perhaps as soon as this week against USC. Fiso can't come off the field on base downs and Calhoun has played very well through four games with Fiso and/or Sam out. Against Air Raid and perhaps other spread teams, Calhoun can't bump over to play Spur in a way that allows Moeakiola to play Bandit because of the issues with covering at his 235 pound linebacker size. So Calhoun probably moves to a sub-package player in those matchups. But against teams that are throwing-based and use a lot of four wide formations, there's no other option right now other than Moeakiola at Spur that makes much sense. That means ASU needs to get better play out of its Bandit, where junior J'Marcus Rhodes got his first start Saturday. He showed some promise there but also had some shaky reps that contributed to Cal's big offensive outburst. But he's probably better than the other options right now unless ASU is willing to throw true freshman Kyle Williams to the wolves. He played one defensive rep against the Golden Bears and did well.

4. ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins had a tale of two halves performance against Cal. In the first half he made a bad decision on his lone interception throw of the night. He also failed to target two open receivers including the player who should have been his primary read on a missed touchdown opportunity at the end of the first quarter that resulted in a sack. Earlier he didn't identify coverage properly on a third and nine play that would have likely resulted in a first down had he targeted senior receiver Tim White, and instead hit a check down to junior running back Kalen Ballage who was five yards short of the first-down marker (on the play Ballage was hurt). Wilkins looked flustered and wasn't seeing the field well, and ASU only managed one touchdown in the half as he went 5 of 10 passing. The second half was a different story though, as Wilkins completed 16 of 20 passes for 228 yards with one touchdown and no interception. Wilkins has done much better overall in the second halves of games this season, settling in, and that proved to be the case when needed against Cal. This season, Wilkins is completing 76.7 percent of his second half throws. That's remarkable. 

5. Wilkins is going to have to start being more careful with the ball in his hands outside the pocket. He was violently sacked at the end of the first quarter after holding the ball for four seconds and bleeding out of the pocket on a third and 9 while failing to spot two open receivers on what probably should have been a touchdown. Instead, he took a pile drive sack that put a lot of force on his right shoulder. That's how quarterbacks get hurt. Wilkins has tended to be too upright when scrambling and be vulnerable to secondary defenders coming in to clean him up when his progress is stopped. He's taken huge hits this year and been very risk-tolerant with his decisions in a way that could easily lead to a problem if he continues. He's not a big quarterback, maybe 190 pounds, and holding up to that type of approach over a long season is fraught. 

6. We thought ASU's special teams might provide it with at least one win this season and Saturday's performance was another indication of this possibility. ASU absolutely dominated Cal on special teams. Even though there was no obvious big return or turnover to point to, ASU's specialists White, senior kicker Zane Gonzalez and senior punter Matt Haack were excellent, and so was Wilkins on his two pooch punt attempts. ASU’s average starting field position was the 41-yard line while Cal's average start was the 22-yard line. Haack allowed zero punt return yards in the game and had a three-punt average of 50.3 yards, with all three winding up inside the opponent 20. Wilkins' two punts provided a 43-yard average as well, both downed inside the 5-yard line. There were no touchbacks. Gonzalez converted all three of his field goal attempts. Seven of his ten kickoffs went for touchbacks and ASU only allowed 18 yards per return on the three that were not touchbacks. Cal has a good return kickoff return capability that it was never able to unveil. ASU didn't have anything that nearly resembled even a hiccup on special teams and with long-snapper Mitchell Fraboni making his return against Cal, things should only get better as long as White stays healthy. 

7. ASU's offensive line was flat beaten at the point of attack in the first half, which limited its run game and caused it to alter the game plan. That was expected to be a strength of the Sun Devils from the jump in this game given that Cal was last by a mile in rushing defense in the Pac-12 through three games. It didn't materialize early on though, as the Golden Bears had a good game plan that featured their top defensive linemen, junior James Looney, getting as close to the line of scrimmage and the football opposite ASU junior center A.J. McCollum as possible. Looney was getting his hands up and penetrating early in a way that the ASU line had problems with, particularly on outside zone and stretch runs to the left. The right side of the ASU line wasn't working seamlessly to secure those blocks and also allowing linebacker penetration. The result was a surprisingly low 76 yards rushing in the first half. The Sun Devils didn't do any better in the second half, as its yards-per-carry averaged dropped to 3.0, but its first drive of the third quarter was mostly inside runs that re-established offensive flow and got Wilkins into a rhythm. 

8. Junior pass rusher Koron Crump is starting to come on just as the Pac-12 schedule is getting underway and it's at a perfect time for ASU's defense as it heads into matchups against teams that will have quarterbacks and schemes that hold the ball just a little bit longer on average. Crump had two sacks against the Golden Bears, spelling starting base down junior Devil backer Alani Latu. There are very few pure pass rushers in the league this year and Crump is among the better ones and is already second in the league with three sacks. He's still not a guy who is ready to play against the run on an every-down basis, and Latu has done well in that regard. But Crump hit Webb several times that weren't sacks, and is explosive attacking the pocket. 

9. Once again, ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey called a very good football game. In the first half he had the perfect situational play calls dialed up several times in key spots but his players weren't able to execute. This was primarily due to the aforementioned offensive line and quarterback issues. But Lindsey kept his composure, as we've seen consistently be the case. He's remarkably even-keeled and scheme-focused, taking what's given to him. He called some key quarterback runs when Cal presented six man boxes, and his best call of the night may have been after a Cal timeout and led to sophomore JayJay Wilson's 30-yard touchdown catch that tied the game at 34 in the middle of the fourth quarter. The previous two plays had been Sparky formation with Wilson as an h-back. After Cal took a timeout to adjust, Wilkins was back at quarterback but with the same personnel on the field. This time though, Wilson was in-line instead of senior Kody Kohl, and he roasted Arizona native Luke Rubenzer who played poorly and admitted as much after the game. Rubenzer missed his key read assignment on the tight end release and Wilkins threw a perfect pass for the touchdown. 

10. ASU's second half play this season and comebacks from multiple touchdown deficits against its last two opponents, UTSA and Cal, has been impressive. But the Sun Devils are going to have to play better in the first half of games to continue to win as they have, particularly as they go on the road against teams like USC, Colorado, Washington and Oregon. That's going to start with the offensive line and Wilkins getting into an earlier rhythm, but it also comes down to ASU's defense not giving up explosive plays on missed key reads, like the 71 yard touchdown that Calhoun allowed when he didn't peel the running back against Cal. A 4-0 start is really impressive, but the Pac-12 South is devoid of any great team and that means the Sun Devils are just as capable as anyone of making a run for the division title. But it will take even better play than they've shown to this point over a full game. 


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