And Arizona State had played much better than expected coming into the Cal game. The Sun Devils had lost by just 11 points to No. 1 Oregon, and they had proven they could perform on the road, with a one-point loss at Wisconsin, which has since beaten Ohio State and Iowa; a three-point loss at Oregon State, and a 10-point victory at Washington. Plus, the Sun Devils were coming off a bye, so they had an extra week to prepare for the Bears.
However, Cal took Arizona State apart, scoring 40 consecutive points to take a 40-3 lead midway through the third quarter and coasting in with a surprisingly easy victory.
The only explanation is that the game was at home, where the Bears have been outstanding. They are 4-0 at home, and none of those four games has been closer than 28 points. The road is where Cal has had its problems, which is why it is so difficult to anticipate how it will do against Oregon State.
Quarterback Kevin Riley, who was 3-for-12 with two interceptions in the first half against USC when the Trojans built a 42-0 lead, was effective against Arizona State. He was 19-for-28 for 240 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against Arizona State's strong defense.
The Cal defense had an even bigger turnaround.
After getting manhandled by USC, which went up and down the field on the Bears when the Trojans' first string was in the game, Cal's defense did not allow Arizona State to score a touchdown. The Sun Devils' two touchdowns came on a blocked punt and a fumble return, and the Cal defense did not yield a point after the Sun Devils kicked a field goal on their first possession of the game.
More than anything, the game was a statement about the Bears' resiliency. The humiliating loss to USC could have sent the Bears on a downward spiral that would have landed them at the bottom of the Pac-10. Instead, they are 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference heading into the Oregon State game, very much in the hunt for a bowl berth.
"It looked by the crowd that some people have given up on our team," coach Jeff Tedford said, regarding a crowd that was announced at 51,599, about 10,000 less than Cal had for its previous home game against UCLA, although the rainy weather no doubt had something to do with the attendance against Arizona State.
"It was nothing but negativity from the outside (the preceding week). The only people that believed were the people in that locker room. They showed a lot of heart."
No one showed more heart than Riley, who has been the target of much of that criticism. Tedford still thought Riley could have used better judgment on a few plays in which he took sacks instead of throwing the ball away when Cal got into the red zone. But his performance was dramatically better than his showing against USC the previous week.
"Coach told us that Cal alumni were questioning our heart, and that's the biggest criticism you can have," Riley said.
No one is questioning Cal's heart now, at least until it plays at Oregon State.
NOTES & QUOTES
GAME BALL GOES TO: QB Kevin Riley -- After his poor performance against USC, when he was 3-for-12 with two interceptions in the first half, Riley responded by going 19-for-28 for 240 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was aided by two outstanding catches by Marvin Jones, but Riley avoided the critical turnovers that typically doom his performance. He did take a few sacks when he should have thrown the ball away, but he did not throw an interception or fumble in those situations.
KEEP AN EYE ON: S Sean Cattouse -- He was expected to be one of the Bears' defensive stars, but a preseason hamstring injury and the play of Josh Hill took him out of the starting lineup. He got his first start of the season against Arizona State as the Bears used five defensive backs throughout the game. Cattouse was outstanding, with eight tackles, including two big hits, and an interception. Cattouse also prevented a third-down completion in the first half with a big hit that jarred the ball from J.T. Simpson. Jeff Tedford said he deserves more playing time, and it remains to be seen how that will come. Cal has had success with five defensive backs, and you wonder whether the Bears might use that scheme as its base.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not really sure if there's an answer to that. We practice on the home field every day; being at home, the home crowd, I know we're more comfortable at home, but who isn't?" -- Cal LB Mike Mohamed, on the Bears' dramatically better play at home than on the road.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LOOKING GOOD: Cal's defense did not yield a touchdown against Arizona State after getting lit up for six first-half touchdowns against USC. (Arizona State's touchdowns came on a blocked punt and a fumble return.) The Bears did not yield a point after Arizona State kicked a field goal on its first possession of the game. And that scoring drive was a bit of a fluke, because the big play was a 44-yard pass play in which Cal DB Steve Williams was in perfect position for an interception and had the ball pop out of his hands and into the hands of Arizona State receiver J.T. Simpson. The Bears forced two turnovers, intercepting two Steven Threet passes and knocking him out of the game. Threet sat out the second half with a concussion.
STILL NEEDS WORK: Focus on the road. The Bears have played well in only one of their three road games, and the Cal defense got run over like it was not even there against Nevada and USC. Everybody plays better at home than on the road, but the difference with Cal is particularly dramatic. Cal's defense and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast need to figure out a way to bring the defensive intensity it has at home on the road. Until it does, the wild swings in performance will continue. The same is true of QB Kevin Riley, who has not done much in the Bears' three road games.