Cal's Sept. 29 home game against Arizona State may be the defining game of the Golden Bears' season.
In preseason, this game appeared to provide an easy victory for the Golden Bears, but now it seems like a significant challenge based on the Sun Devils' unexpected success in their first four games.
This game will give the best indication yet of how good Cal is -- or can be.
Cal survived its two-game road swing against ranked opponents with most of its confidence intact. Although it lost both games, the Golden Bears were in position to win both in the fourth quarter.
The Bears' inability to win those games may say something about Cal's ability to finish off games -- which was an issue in the season-opening loss to Nevada as well. Quite simply, Cal has been in position to win all four of its games in the fourth quarter, but failed in three of them to come up with the big plays.
Arizona State, surprisingly, may present the biggest challenge of the season for the Cal defense. The Sun Devils were expected to battle Colorado for the bottom spot in the Pac-12 South based on the talent they lost, including quarterback Brock Osweiler, who's now in the NFL. But they rank 15th in the country in scoring, averaging 41.3 points a game, and that includes a 37-7 victory on Sept. 22 over a Utah team whose strength is its defense.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly, a first-year starter, has been outstanding, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions. He is also a capable runner, and dual-threat quarterbacks have given the Bears problems, although they did control Ohio State's Braxton Miller in the second half of the loss to the Buckeyes.
The Sun Devils also run the ball well, although they do not have one running back who carries the load.
The biggest issue for Cal will be pass protection. Quarterback Zach Maynard has been sacked 13 times in the past two games, and he showed his frustration at the end of the USC game. Meanwhile, ASU has 14 sacks in its first four games, so the Sun Devils are very capable of applying pressure.
If the game were played in Tempe, Cal would be a clear underdog, but playing the game in Berkeley makes it virtually a toss-up game -- one the Golden Bears need to win to avoid slipping to 1-4 and seeing their bowl chances start to disappear.
--Cal is 1-3 for the first time since 2003, and a loss to Arizona State would make the Golden Bears 1-4 for the first time in Jeff Tedford's 11 seasons as head coach. The last time Cal started a season that poorly was 2001, Tom Holmoe's final season, when the Bears lost their first 10 games and finished 1-10.
--Injuries on the offensive line have contributed to Cal's inability to protect the passer and establish a consistent running game. OT Matt Summers-Gavin has missed the past three games with a knee injury, and the Bears are hoping he can return against Arizona State. Dominic Galas, who also would be a starter up front, has not played all season, and he is probably at least a few more weeks away from returning. The Bears also are using Brian Schwenke at center instead of the offensive tackle position he occupied last season, and that may affect things as well. The Bears have already yielded 18 sacks this season.
--Brendan Bigelow will be the fans' focus for the Arizona State game. He was the star of the game against Ohio State, rushing for 160 yards, including two long touchdown runs, but he had only four carries, including none in the first half, against USC. How the Cal coaches use Bigelow against Arizona State will be worth watching.
--Arizona State has played three of its four games at home, winning all three home games and losing its only road game (to Missouri). The Sun Devils have not yet shown they can be the same offensive power on the road that they are at home.
--Even though Cal has yielded 18 sacks, including 13 in the past two games, and has not run the ball as effectively as expected, Arizona State coach Todd Graham said Cal has the best offensive line the Sun Devils have faced this season. That's quite an indictment of the offensive lines of the first four teams the Sun Devils have faced.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads 17-14 (last meeting 2011, Cal 47-38).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Bears' running game has not been nearly as effective as expected. Nearly a third of their rushing yardage this season came on three long runs by backup TBs Daniel Lasco and Brendan Bigelow. The Bears were expected to rely on their running game, and it has not been productive. QB Zach Maynard has been fairly efficient when he has had time to throw, but he has been sacked 13 times in the past two games. Keenan Allen gives the Bears a big-play wide receiver, and freshman WRs Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have been productive. Injuries at tight end have limited productivity at that position, and Jeff Tedford had hoped to make better use of tight ends this season.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Cal's defense has played well at times. Cal's pass defense has been better than expected, and the play of CBs Steve Williams and Marc Anthony has helped improved the Bears in that department, although pass defense still would not be considered a strength. The bigger issue is the run defense. Cal allowed two USC running backs to rush for more than 100 yards apiece on Sept. 22. The Bears have a lot of talented linebackers, but none have emerged as a star yet. Cal's pass rush has been a disappointment after being a major weapon the past two seasons. After getting 34 sacks last season, the Bears have eight sacks in four games this season, and five of those sacks came against overmatched Southern Utah.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Right now we have only one guy in the offensive line with any experience from last year." -- Cal coach Jeff Tedford, on the struggles of the offensive line, which has been hit with injuries.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Arizona State at Cal, Sept. 29 -- Cal has won seven of the last eight games against Arizona State. Cal is 1-3 (0-1 in the Pac-12) after consecutive losses to Ohio State and USC on the road, while Arizona State is 3-1 (1-0 in the conference) with lopsided wins over Northern Arizona, Illinois and Utah. The Sun Devils lost their only road game, a 24-20 defeat at Missouri.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The pass rush is the key on both sides of the ball for Cal. Cal has yielded 13 sacks the past two games, and Arizona State has recorded 14 sacks for the season. If Cal can give Zach Maynard adequate time to throw, he should be able to complete a lot of passes against the ASU defense. If he doesn't have time, Cal's offense will struggle. Having Maynard roll out so he can throw on the run may help avoid the pass rush, because he has been an accurate thrower while on the move. Being able to create a running threat -- something Cal has been unable to do -- will help slow down the pass rush as well. Cal running backs had only 17 carries for 86 yards against USC, and the Bears need more carries and more yards from them. Meanwhile, Cal has to put pressure on ASU QB Taylor Kelly. Cal has managed just three sacks against its three FBS opponents combined, and if Kelly has that kind of time, he will shred the Bears' secondary. Cal also must prevent Kelly from making big plays with his legs, something Cal has struggled with when facing dual-threat quarterbacks.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen -- Always QB Zach Maynard's No. 1 target, Allen is capable of producing a big play as a pass receiver, runner or punt returner. He has yet to have a 100-yard receiving game though. He had more than 100 yards receiving in five of the first six games last season, but has gone 11 straight games without another one.
TB Isi Sofele -- After averaging 101.7 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry last season, Sofele is averaging just 57 yards a game and 4.3 yards per attempt this season. He needs to be the reliable running threat he was last a year ago.
QB Zach Maynard -- The Bears need him to be the player he was against Ohio State, when he went 26-for-37 with his only interception coming in a desperation situation in the closing minutes. He has completed 63.4 percent of his passes but has as many interceptions (four) as touchdown passes. He may need to roll out more or get rid of the ball faster because he has not been given much time to throw.
OLB Chris McCain -- McCain has been in and out of games because of various ailments, and the Bears need him on the field because he provides big-play potential defensively. He has 2.5 tackles for loss, and he and Brennan Scarlett will be particularly important in controlling Arizona State QBJTaylor Kelly.
--OT Matt Summers-Gavin is questionable for the Arizona State game with a knee injury.
--TE Richard Rodgers is probable with a foot injury.
--TE Jacob Wark is questionable with a foot injury.
--G Dominic Galas is not expected to play for at least the first half of the season because of a pectoral injury and could be out for the entire season.
--LB Khairi Fortt is not expected to play as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery.
--LB David Wilkerson is questionable with a foot injury.
--TE Spencer Hagan is out with a knee injury.
--TB Daniel Lasco is questionable for the Arizona State game with a head injury.