Gina Mizell's answers to Cal Sports Digest's questions...
After USC was upset by Oregon State the race for the Pac-10 Crown opened up. Arizona State plays Cal and USC in consecutive games. How does the program feel about this opportunity and what type of importance are they placing on these next two games?
The losses suffered by USC and some of the other top-ranked teams in the country last week showed that there's still so much season left to be played, and these next few weeks are definitely huge opportunities for ASU to show that it's still one of the best teams in the Pac-10. The Sun Devils are 1-0 in the conference right now and still feel like they are in a really good position to challenge for the Pac-10 title. While the players and coaches will say that they don't put too much emphasis on any one-conference game because they all count the same, these next three games for the Sun Devils (at Cal, at USC, home against Oregon) will basically define their season. If the Sun Devils can get a win against the Bears this weekend, then it will be a giant boost going into the USC game. If they lose, then this team could be 2-5 by the end of October and fighting just to make a bowl game. It's a huge weekend for the Sun Devils because it's their first road test in a place where they haven't won since 1997 and they want to bounce back after the UNLV and Georgia losses, so it will be interesting to see how they respond.
USC has dominated this conference for a number of years. There is not a team that has elevated itself year-in-and-year-out as the second best team in the league capable of beating the Trojans. What are Coach Erickson's expectations for this program and is he committed long term to Arizona State?
I believe this will be Erickson's last stop and that he will be here for a number of years until he's ready to retire. He seems very content in Tempe and wants to build this program, and he's proven he can do that. He has very high expectations for ASU, as does anyone else associated with the program and the fans. The goal is obviously to end the USC dynasty and to have ASU compete for a BCS bowl berth year in and year out. He's put a big emphasis on recruiting better athletes, and it's already starting to show. ASU has already played 10 true freshmen this season, which is a new school record. The Sun Devils don't have the players right now to compete with USC and the other top teams in the nation on a consistent basis, but Erickson has put together a great coaching staff and he thinks they can be an elite team in a couple years once his recruits start making their way through the program.
The offensive line was a weakness last season and that unit did not play well against Georgia. What was done to improve that unit in the off-season?
It's still probably the biggest weakness of this team. It's a very young group with three first-year starters, and while the sack numbers aren't quite as bad as last season, the unit has still struggled to protect Carpenter and to open holes for the running backs. They simplified the system a bit in the off-season, and there should be some personnel shakeups on Saturday because of position battles that took place during the bye week and that have continued this week. Either junior college transfer Tom Njunge or red shirt freshman Matt Hustad will make his first career start at right tackle on Saturday in place of redshirt freshman Adam Tello, who has struggled all season. Redshirt freshman Garth Gerhart has also been challenging junior Thomas Altieri for the starting center spot. It's been an area that the coaching staff has focused a lot on, but it's a group that still needs a lot of work and improvement.
Cal's linebackers and defensive backs have played well this season. What do the Bear's do that concerns Arizona State the most?
The fact that the Bears run the 3-4 and that's a different scheme than the Sun Devil offense sees from most teams is what is going to require the most preparation. The team was already working on playing against the 3-4 during last Thursday's practice. Erickson talked a lot about how good Cal's corps of linebackers is against the run, which obviously has not been the Sun Devils' strength this season. Carpenter also specifically mentioned Syd'Quan Thompson as a big playmaker in the secondary. ASU has one of the best quarterbacks and receiving corps in the country, but the Sun Devils are going to have to run the ball at least a little bit in order for the big plays to open up in the passing game.
Offensively the Bears have players that are good, but young and inexperienced, running back Shane Vereen along with quarterback Kevin Riley and tight end Cameron Morrah. How does Coach Erickson feel his defense will do against the Bears?
Even with the changes the Bears' offense could see this weekend with Best being out and the reopened quarterback competition, the ASU defense won't change its preparation too much. The Sun Devils know the Bears have a talented and balanced offense that can put a lot of points on the board. ASU has a solid group of linebackers (though junior Gerald Munns will miss the rest of the season because of personal matters) and junior defensive end Dexter Davis can get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, so the Sun Devils will try to stop the run and force Riley or Longshore to throw the ball to those wide receivers that haven't seen a lot of playing time in their careers.
Arizona State has one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Rudy Carpenter and wide receivers Michael Jones and Kerry Taylor are good players. Do the players really believe that they can win the Pac-10? What is keeping this team from reaching it's full potential?
With USC going down, it's now a whole new race in the Pac-10, and the ASU players and coaches definitely feel like they are still in the mix for the conference title going into the meat of their schedule. The Sun Devils have a chance to right the ship and make a huge statement over these next few weeks, or show that they are not among the conference's elite. I don't think it's fair to say that this team hasn't reached its full potential when there's still eight games to play, but there are a few things that have to get better if the team wants to have a realistic shot at the Pac-10 crown. The running game and offensive line have to improve, the team has to score more touchdowns when it gets inside the red zone and someone other than Davis needs to start getting consistent pressure on the quarterback.
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