Preview: Arizona State will bring a physical and multiple rushing attack against Cal

We break down Arizona State's attack both in the air and on the ground, and find out just how Darius Allensworth is planning to play the Sun Devils' most dangerous receivers.

The ASU Run Game

"Too many yards." Three words were all Luke Rubenzer needed to encapsulate California's skin-of-their-teeth win over then-No. 11 Texas last week. The Bears allowed 307 rushing yards to the Longhorns, and 568 total yards of offense.

Cal -- owner of the third-worst rushing defense in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision (New Mexico State and Georgia State are worse), allowing 296.3 yards per game on the ground alone -- won't get any respite this week.

Arizona State is 16th in the nation in rushing yards per game, tied with -- Who else? -- San Diego State, with 260.7 yards per game. The Aztecs rushed for 334 yards against the Bears, and while then, Cal only had to deal with Donnel Pumphrey (who rushed for 281 yards against the Bears, and is currently leading the nation with 559), they'll have to deal with a lot more, come Saturday. The Sun Devils are armed with Demario Richard -- tied for 28th in the nation with 282 total yards rushing, and tied for 31st in rushing yards per game -- and Kalen Ballage. In Arizona State's 68-55 win over Texas Tech, Ballage broke the Pac-12 single-game record and tied the FBS single-game record by rushing for eight touchdowns. 

"It's fun to watch him, because he just runs so hard," said Cal special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl, who reviewed tape of Ballage taking back kicks and punts in the first half of last week's game. "He's kind of a throwback."

Six of those touchdowns came out of the so-called Sparky wildcat direct-snap formation, and he was again run out of that formation against UT-San Antonio.

"You have to account for him as the 11th guy," said defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. "If they're not in the run game or whatever, then you're playing against 10 and the guy throwing the ball, but when you get to that, the 11th guy, you've got to make sure that everybody's in their run fit."

Th 6-foot-3, 230-pound Ballage is currently 47th in the nation with 255 total rushing yards.

"He runs physical," said safety Evan Rambo, who played dime in the Arizona State game last season. "He runs fast, he's big, reminiscent of the Texas running backs, but he has a little bit more speed. We've got to get low, wrap him up and bring him down."

After Pumphrey repeatedly slipped through the Bears' hands two weeks ago, the size of the Longhorns running backs allowed Cal defenders to sink their teeth in, so to speak, and focus on being physical. Ballage and Richard are going to make that more difficult.

"It gives us confidence, and shows us that we know how to tackle," Rambo said of the Bears' 21:44 of scoreless defense against Texas. "It shows us that we can stop a run when we need to. It gave us confidence. We just have to work on technique and run our feet."

The Bears showed they could form tackle. Now, they won't have any excuse.

"We put it on tape," Rambo said. "We just have to execute it week in and week out. We've shown that we can do it."

Unlike the Aztecs, who run one back from under center, Sun Devils offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey's offense puts both Ballage and Richard on the field at the same time, alongside Manny Wilkins, stacked, with either one acting as fullback or running back on any given play. Center A.J. McCollum -- a one-time Cal commit -- has been a revelation since being inserted in the second game of the season, and provides a physical force in the middle that will challenge James Looney.

“I tell him he’s an old school center,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “He’s just the old, just tough, blood and guts kind of guy. I like the guy. He really just brings a lot of physicality in the run game. He’s a guy that really likes coming off the football and blocking people."

"We've got to be able to stay in our fits and match their runs, and continue to work on eliminating the big plays," said Kaufman. "When I look at their offensive line, their fullbacks and tailbacks that are returning, those guys are built for running the ball."

Both running backs can play the slot, and, when put in motion, are both threats for the jet sweep, or to fake the jet sweep, with the other getting the ball out of a pistol look.

"They're really multiple in what they do, offensively," said Bears head coach Sonny Dykes. "They give you a lot of different looks, and they have some really talented running backs. Pumphrey was a smaller, quicker guy. The backs we faced this past week against Texas were bigger and more physical guys. Arizona State's are kind of a bit of both. They have really good skills, probably as good a skills as anybody has in this league. The best skills we've played against this year, without a doubt, just in terms of their size and speed, and they make big plays."

Because of Cal's shallow depth at linebacker and base nickel look, at times, safeties have had to play down with the linebackers against run-heavy teams, and this week, that will be the case with Evan Rambo.

"We've got to make sure our eyes are right," Rambo said. "We have to read the running backs, make sure w have the right fits. Everything is about assignments this week. We can't lose contain, can't read your wrong key. It's going to be about reading our assignments."

So far, in three games, Rambo, who was thrown into the mix as a starter after Damariay Drew went down, has 10 tackles, one interception and a breakup.

"Rambo is growing and becoming a good player," Kaufman said. "You look at where he was a year ago, he played a little bit of safety during fall camp, and then we moved him to a dime position, so he really didn't play safety until we got back and got ready for the bowl game. As basically a freshman player in there, he's learning, and he's getting better every week."

Manny Happy Returns

Ballage and Richard aren't the only running threats. As Rambo alluded to by referring to outside containment, Wilkins is quite a runner.

In the first quarter against UT-San Antonio, Wilkins took scrambled and took a massive blow from a Roadrunners' defender who blew up the play in front of Ballage. Even though the hit elicited consternation from the Sun Devils coaching staff, Wilkins popped up and trotted back to the line of scrimmage for the next play. "I mean, Manny's no regular quarterback in my eyes, he's tough as nails so anytime he gets hit, he pops right up and he keeps playing," Ballage said. "That's what football is about, you pop up after being hit and after anything, just getting right back up and playing football."

Hitting Wilkins won't have the same effect as the Bears' early hits against Texas's Shane Buechele, which forced him out of the game for a significant stretch, and forced some early and errant releases on the part of the freshman quarterback.

"He's a skilled runner, and he brings another option, another threat that we have to deal with on the field, so instead of having two running backs, it's more like three running backs," Rambo said. "They have options that they want to do, so we've just got to limit it. He's nothing ultra-special from what we've seen, but he can still make plays when he needs to."

"He's a tough guy," Kaufman said. "He runs the ball quite a bit, and they use him in the quarterback run game, and he doesn't take many hits. He gets tackled, but he doesn't take any direct hits, and when he does, he's a tough guy, and he gets up."

This season, Wilkins has run 33 times for 191 yards, and taken only four sacks, throwing four touchdowns to two interceptions. Wilkins has a lot of arm talent, but his accuracy still leaves a bit to be desired down field. That said, he's completed 66.3% of his passes, and has a lightning-quick release, particularly in the screen game, when he sees a receiver open in space.

"I think the big thing is just how much he's improved," Dykes said. "He's getting more comfortable every start. You can see the improvement's obvious. Every single week, he gets more comfortable. He can make plays with his feet, he's throwing the ball well, making good decisions, and if a play breaks down, he's athletic enough to take off and has done a nice job converting some third downs and keeping drives alive. When you go and look at him, he's really starting to develop into a good quarterback, and just improves with almost every single rep. He's better at the ends of games than he was at the beginning, and certainly better from week to week."

Passing Game

Wilkins's favorite target is Tim White, who's hauled in 15 passes for 135 yards in two games this season (White did play against UTSA, but only in the second half, and only as a returner, after being sidelined with an ankle injury).

White -- who came close to qualifying for the Rio Olympics in the triple jump, finishing fourth at the National Championships, before falling short in the qualifying round at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene -- is a dynamic, shifty receiver with great burst, but he won't be the only pass catcher the Bears have to contend with.

On run-pass options, Wilkins will go with fade throws against press coverage, as shown by UTSA last week, and there's no better man to catch those than 6-foot-4, 220-pound N'Keal Harry. "I think San Antonio did what was in their scheme and their personality, and did a nice job, but the biggest thing we have to do is play within ourselves," Kaufman said.

Those run-pass options are very similar to those in the current Cal offense, and those used under Tony Franklin, so going against the Bears' own offense this week has helped the defense.

"Week to week, they change some, but that's one of the biggest things you see -- the run-pass options," Kaufman said. "It's not unique [to them]. It's a spread offense and a no-huddle."

So far this season, Wilkins is 63-for-95 for 795 yards, with White and Harry (15 catches for 181 yards) tied for the team lead in catches.

"The freshman, he's a big kid," said cornerback Darius Allensworth. "He's going to line up on the opposite side of me, most of the game, but I might go over there and cover him a couple of times. Anything like that, you've got to play through the hands, and make sure you know what you're doing. Most guys aren't really quick off the line, so to me, that's an advantage. I can move with him laterally. I have to keep my eyes down, stay in front of him and play his hands, and we should be fine on all deep balls."

Allensworth will mainly be on White and Cameron Smith (8 catches for 132 yards) over the course of the game.

"[Smith] is a fast guy, and he can play, mix it up," Allensworth said. "My main thing is, make sure I keep mixing it up each and every series, don't let them see me press every down, don't let them see me play off every down, see me bail. My main focus is to keep mixing it up and give the quarterback different looks." Top Stories