Cal Preview

With a possible three-game losing streak staring them in the face, and a road trip to USC looming next week, Saturday's game at Berkeley has become a crucial contest for the Sun Devils. Coming off a bye, head coach Dennis Erickson put the focus back on the ground game in hopes that a Keegan Herring-led backfield will lead ASU to its first win in Strawberry Canyon since 1997.

2008 Record: 3-1, 1-0 Pac-10
Head Coach: Jeff Tedford

Last Week: Cal wrapped up the non-conference slate with a 42-7 rout of Colorado State at home.

OFFENSE
*Projected Starters

WR Sean Young, SR
LT Mitchell Schwartz, FR
LG Mark Boskovich, SO
C Alex Mack, SR
RG Noris Malele, SR
RT Chet Teofilo, JR
TE Cameron Morrah, JR
QB Kevin Riley, SO
FB Will Ta'ufo'ou, SR
TB Shane Vereen, FR
WR LaReylle Cunningham, SR

After a shaky start in the season opener, quarterback Nate Longshore was quickly replaced by emerging sophomore Kevin Riley, which seemed to signal the beginning of the end for the senior. Fast forward four games into the season and Riley's grip on the starting job has noticeably weakened as he's struggled to develop consistency with an inexperienced receiving corps.

The more mobile Riley, who has tossed seven touchdowns and only one interception this season, will share snaps with Longshore this week according to head coach Jeff Tedford. The California skipper indicated it could be a game day decision as to who will start under center on Saturday. Longshore, who has 5,947 career passing yards under his belt, has struggled to regain his earlier form since injuring his ankle a year ago.

Despite missing two starters now, the offensive line still appears to be solid with senior Alex Mack anchoring the unit at center. Mack, a Rimington Award candidate, and his teammates have given up six sacks this season, five of which were surrendered in the cross-country trip to Maryland.

Tedford has consistently preached a balanced offensive attack since taking over the reins in 2002. He received some unwelcome news this past week in learning that starting tailback Jahvid Best will be unavailable with a dislocated elbow.

Best, who is likely to be back in 2-3 weeks, is a big play threat any time he touches the ball but his injury isn't enough to make Tedford abandon his offensive philosophy in the meantime.

Expect to see a dose of Shane Vereen and Tracy Slocum run the ball behind the talented run-blocking line that will open some holes. Vereen helped seal the win in the season-opener against Michigan State by busting out for an 81-yard score. His 8-yard average per carry still gives the Bears a scoring threat in the backfield. Slocum has rushed for 55 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries.

The loss of Best means Riley or Longshore will also be without their top receiver this Saturday. The RB's 14 receptions pace the team, which leaves tight end Cameron Morrah as the only reliable target both quarterbacks will be searching for on Saturday.

Morrah has a team-high three receiving touchdowns in four games. Outside of the junior, it's been a frustrating ride thus far for the Bears to establish a rhythm in the passing game as the inexperience continues to show. Senior LaReylle Cunningham leads the rest of the pack with 181 yards on 11 receptions. All other wide receivers are still searching to crack the double digit reception mark this season. Sean Young, Nyan Boateng, and Michael Calvin round out the aerial targets for both quarterbacks. Both Young and Boateng have a touchdown.

DEFENSE
*Projected Starters

DE Cameron Jordan, SO
NT Derrick Hill, SO
DE Tyson Alualu, JR
OLB Zack Follett, SR
ILB Worrell Williams, SR
ILB Anthony Felder, SR
OLB Eddie Young, JR
S Brett Johnson, JR
S Marcus Ezeff, JR
CB Darian Hagan, SO

CB Syd'Quan Thompson, JR

Defensive end Rulon Davis, who seemed poised for a breakout season in 2008, injured his leg last week and is expected to be out for up to six weeks. Fortunately for California, they still have a talented end in Tyson Alualu to lean on. The junior leads all linemen with 18 stops and three quarterback hurries. Former Arizona prep standout Cameron Jordan will start in Davis' place opposite Alualu. Nose tackle Derrick Hill has been somewhat quiet to start the season with six assisted tackles and just one solo stop despite starting all four games. Senior Mika Kane, who made seven starts a year ago in the former 4-3 standard base defense, figures to be in the rotation behind Hill.

Checking in as the conference's second-best rush defense is Cal's new look 3-4 base, which features a handful of talented linebackers. The unit is brimming with talent and experience as seniors Zack Follett, Worrell Williams, and Anthony Felder have a combined 65 starts between them.

Follett is among the top linebackers in the conference and has a penchant for making big plays, as evidenced by his 15 career sacks and nine forced fumbles. Both he and Williams, who collected 105 stops last season, were both named to the preseason Butkus Award Watch List. Not to be left out, Felder leads the team in tackles with 31 while junior Eddie Young is coming off of a career-best outing by notching seven tackles in the win over Colorado State. Sophomore Mike Mohamed is the top reserve, recording 23 tackles off the bench in 2008.

Former Arizona State assistant Al Simmons heads up a secondary that currently tops the conference with eight interceptions. Junior cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson has three takeaways to go along with 22 tackles. Thompson also notched a pair of sacks on the season, and pairs with sophomore Darian Hagan to give the Bears an emerging cornerback duo.

Hagan, whose experience last year was primarily on special teams, has begun to blossom in his new role as a starter in 2008. His four pass break-ups are tied for the team lead. Junior safeties Marcus Ezeff and Brett Johnson have combined for 29 stops and two interceptions. Former starter Bernard Hicks, who has 14 tackles and an interception in three games, will share snaps with Johnson.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P Bryan Anger, FR
PK David Seawright, FR

PR Syd'Quan Thompson, JR
KR Darian Hagan, SO

Freshmen specialists Bryan Anger and David Seawright have given Tedford his share of highs and lows already this season. Anger has been a pleasant surprise with a 44.2 yard average on 17 punts, which ranks 15th in the nation. Seven of those punts have been placed inside the 20-yard line. Seawright, however, hasn't been quite as sharp, particularly on kickoffs as the freshman has surrendered precious field position with three kickoffs going out of bounds. Seawright is 4 of 6 on field goal attempts, missing his last two attempts from 25 and 41 yards out.

Cal's special teams scored 14 points last week in the win over Colorado State. Cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson returned a punt 73 yards for a score while teammate Bryant Nnabuife ran in a blocked punt for another touchdown. Thompson's 17.4 yard average on punt returns currently ranks second in the Pac-10. Best's absence this weekend means the Devils catch a bit of a break as the ball carrier is also a dangerous return man for the Bears. Darian Hagan is expected to field kickoffs in place of Best but has just one 24-yard kick return to his credit in 2007.

KEYS TO VICTORY FOR ARIZONA STATE:

1. Focused Special Teams: Hopefully the Sun Devils have used the bye week to regroup the special teams units as they'll need to bring a much better effort into Strawberry Canyon. Cal's three blocked kicks this season have led to 21 points while the return game accounted for another 7 points. Giving the home team great field position or extra momentum through big plays is a recipe for trouble on the road.

2. Herring's Return: The running back's return to the lineup not only means a spark for a struggling run game but also a boost to the team moxy as well. The senior's vocal leadership in the huddle as well as on the sidelines is just what the team needs as they seem to be at their best when playing loose. ASU is hoping that his rested hamstring will allow him to create enough on the ground to open up the passing game for quarterback Rudy Carpenter.

3. Quarterback Pressure: If there was ever a game the Sun Devils needed to constantly harass the opposing signal caller, the contest against Cal is it. Forcing either Longshore or Riley to make plays through the air could play out nicely for the visitors from Tempe. Longshore's mobility, or lack thereof, also comes into question should he be the one under center. With Omar Bolden, ASU's top corner, going through some struggles right now, this could be a game where the sophomore could regain some much-needed confidence if he can get some help from his teammates up front.

KEYS TO VICTORY FOR CALIFORNIA:

1. Sharp Passing Game: With conference play in full swing now, the Bears need to know where they stand in the aerial attack capabilities. Even with Jahvid Best's injury, the run game should still be formidable behind the run blockers Cal still suits up in the trenches. In the match up of a sputtering passing game vs. a struggling pass defense, something has to give, and if the former prevails Cal will be awfully hard to contain on offense.

2. Force ASU to Establish a Run Game First: Although Sun Devil skipper Dennis Erickson's belief in the ground game hasn't wavered; it's the results portion that the maroon and gold have struggled with ever since workhorse ball carrier Ryan Torain went down last year. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter can only do so much when teams can sit back in coverage and clog the throwing lanes for his receivers. If the Bears can continue to rely on their solid front seven in limiting the ground game, the Sun Devils' offensive woes may rear its ugly head for a third straight game.

3. Win the Turnover Battle: There hasn't been a more decisive stat in recent years for Cal. Under Tedford, the Bears are 18-1 in Pac-10 games when winning the turnover battle and 6-16 when they are on the short end of that category. Needless to say, last season's second half collapse was filled with turnovers. Led by the defense's eight interceptions this year, Cal is tops in the conference in turnover margin with a +4 mark. To his credit, quarterback Kevin Riley hasn't thrown the untimely interceptions that have plagued his competitor under center, Nate Longshore.

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