One of the major topics discussed at today’s weekly media luncheon was how Cal’s running attack will match up with Arizona State’s stout run defense. The Sun Devils are ranked sixth nationally in stopping the run (83.4 ypg) while the Bears are the Pac-10’s top running team (12th nationally) at 216.0 yards per game.
ASU’s run defense could present problems for Cal. The Bears have racked up some impressive rushing numbers this season, but much of that has been against some pretty mediocre rushing defenses. The only games in which the Bears struggled to move the ball on the ground came against the two highest-ranked run defenses they’ve seen — USC and Oregon. According to NCAA statistics this week, USC has the fifth-ranked rushing defense in the country while Oregon is at No. 41. Cal’s other opponents so far run down like this: Maryland 65th, UCLA 83rd, Minnesota 96th, Washington State 114th and of course Eastern Washignton is an FCS school.
That’s why Saturday will be a real test for Cal, its running game and its offense as a whole. The Bears need to prove they can move the ball against a good run defense or else they will get stuck in the same predicament as the beginning of Pac-10 play — needing to throw the ball to balance out the run game. Cal wasn’t able to do that in its two losses, but that’s not to say it can’t do it against the Sun Devils. ASU has the third-ranked pass defense in the conference and the top-ranked overall defense (280 ypg).
The Sun Devils did exhibit some chinks in the armor during their 33-14 loss to Stanford on Saturday. They allowed 237 yards rushing — their previous opponent’s high was 136. But as Cal coach Jeff Tedford pointed out, Stanford’s running attack is much different than the Bears’. The Cardinal run a downhill, power running scheme led by bruising tailback Toby Gerhart. Cal simply isn’t like that. The Beras rely on speed, lateral movement and getting their backs in space, and the Sun Devils may have the athleticism to match up.
“Stanford is different as far as we’re concerned,” Tedford said. “They have a big back who pounds in there. Those aren’t our backs. We’re not big, pounding backs. Stanford runs downhill a lot at you and they don’t care if you have extra guys in there. They’re going to run downhill at you and let him run through tackles. I’d have to say that we’re not going to look at that game and say, ‘We’re going to do what Stanford did’ – because we don’t, we aren’t Stanford.”
Another topic that came up repeatedly today was just how signifciant this game is for the Bears. Cal has lost to the top two teams in the conference and beat the bottom two. This game will go a long way in determining where the Bears fit in in terms of the middle of the Pac-10.
Other Tuesday notes:
–During the first part of practice that I was able to watch, cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson was practicing without limitation. Tedford had said during the press luncheon that he didn’t expect Thompson to practice as he continues to monitor his back bruise. Thompson may not have participated in other drills but the fact that he wasn’t in a yellow or red jersey is a good sign.
–Nose guard Derrick Hill (sprained shoulder) was not practicing. Tedford said he is day-to-day.
–Quarterback Kevin Riley has been growing a beard ever since the USC loss and doesn’t have any plans to shave it off as long as the team keeps winning. “I’m just going to keep it going,” he said. “I’m trying to maintain it, but I have to let it go. My girlfriend is getting upset, but she can deal with it. She understands.”
–Some Cal players weren’t happy with the conduct of Arizona State’s fans during the Bears’ game there in 2007. Left tackle Mike Tepper alleged one of the player’s moms was spit on. “It’s a hostile environment,” Tepper said. “I think it’s probably the most hostile environment I’ve ever played in. Their fans are ruthless. They have no problem saying stuff to your face. It’s just expected, though. You know it’s going to come.
Riley added: “I remember there two years ago, it got pretty loud. I think they have some obnoxious fans. Arizona State — people know about (their obnoxious fans). It’s a cool place to play.”