Game Day Central: ASU

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Season Finale
WHEN: Nov. 25, 7:15 p.m. PT, 8:15 MST
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
TV: ESPN -- Mike Patrick (Play-by-Play), Craig James (Analyst), Samantha Steele (Sideline Reporter).
THE LINE: Arizona State -5.5
COACHES: California -- Jeff Tedford (78-47 as a head coach); Arizona State -- Dennis Erickson (179-95-1 in college, 40-56 in the NFL, 31-29 at ASU).
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WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Cal's season finale will determine just where the Bears will be bowling this year. A Cal win would dash any chance that the Sun Devils could participate in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game, but Arizona State is doing a fairly good job of doing that itself, having lost the past three games, including the Territorial Cup, 31-27, to a dreadful 3-8 Arizona. Last season, the Bears crushed the Sun Devils to the tune of 50-17. Arizona State's only win over a Tedford-coached Cal team came in Tempe on Oct. 27, 2007, when the Sun Devils came away with a 31-20 win. This season, the Bears are 1-4 in road games, with their only victory coming against a 2-10 Colorado team.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Keenan Allen is just 16 receptions from tying Dameane Douglas as the California football program's all-time single-season leader in receptions. He's on pace to finish the 13-game season (including a bowl game) with 99 catches and 1,418 receiving yards. He ranks second in the Pac-12 and 10th in the nation in both receptions per game (7.64) and receiving yards per game (109.09). He's one of the conference's most dynamic threats on offense, and that means one thing for the Arizona State defense: he'll have a big target on his chest.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder likely won't have much to worry about given the Sun Devils are the not-so-proud owners of the 10th passing defense in the Pac-12, but if he comes across the middle at all, he'll have someone waiting for him: Arizona State middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
"He's physical, he's athletic, he's a big guy," said Bears head coach Jeff Tedford. "For a guy that big to be able to run like he does, he's a quality player, no doubt."
Burfict is eighth in the conference in sacks (5.0), 18th in tackles for loss (tied with teammate Bo Moos with 7.0) and 22nd in tackles with 63, averaging 5.7 per game, which is made even more impressive by the fact that he's been held back, to an extent, to try and eliminate some of the more egregious personal foul penalties that have gained him a reputation -- in USC quarterback Matt Barkley's words -- as a "… dirty player … His switch is always on. And it's not a good switch."
Burfict responded to that barb from an old high school foe with a five-tackle game two months ago, shooting the gap, dropping into coverage or sitting back in the middle to clog passing lanes to frustrate Barkley into throwing two interceptions -- one into Burfict's waiting hands -- as the Trojans went 1-for-9 on third down and 4-of-6 in the red zone, with just two touchdowns from inside the Sun Devils' 20.
That 43-22 win over USC was the first of three straight for Arizona State before the wheels began to rattle. A 41-27 loss in Eugene was not unexpected, but after pounding Colorado 48-14 in Tempe, running their record to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12, something broke.
"If I could identify it, then I'd get things back on the tracks," said head coach Dennis Erickson. "It's been a number of different things that just haven't went well for us the last month. We've just got to try to get it turned around against Cal. It's been a tough month for us, for our players, and we've just got to find a way to win this last football game."
That way may have to be on defense, led by an unchained Burfict.
"Very physical. Very physical guys," Allen said of the Arizona State defense. "They've got one of the best linebackers in the nation. He's definitely going to be physical, trying to after it and make some plays. There won't be any hesitance, but we're definitely going to be looking for him to come across [the middle]. We're just going to come out there and play our game."
But what, exactly, is Cal's offensive game? Is it the power-running game the Bears showed by posting 588 yards on the ground against Washington State and Oregon State? Is it a spread-option to take advantage of quarterback Zach Maynard's legs, as in the season opener against Fresno State? Is it a balanced assault, as demonstrated by Maynard's 20-for-29, 280-yard, two-TD, no-interception day last week in the Big Game, to go along with 34 team rushing attempts? Is Maynard the passer who locks on to a receiver -- particularly Allen -- too early, leading opposing defensive backs with his eyes like he did against USC? Or is he the quarterback who found his little brother covered after a six-catch, 97-yard first quarter against the Cardinal, and then went on to find six other receivers?
"Zach's a great player, he always keeps his composure, goes through his reads, gets it to the right person at all times, and just tries to make a play out there for the team," Allen said of his older brother, in whom he has "definitely" seen improvements since midseason. "I don't know if he's doing anything different other than I think he's picking up more knowledge of the game, coming from a different conference. I think he's growing as a player, going out there, reading coverages, making the right reads and throwing it to the right person at the right time."
While at Buffalo, Maynard had four games with a 150+ passer efficiency rating scattered over the first 11 games, with no particular trend up or down over any particular stretch. He then had his worst game with a PER of 75.64 in his last game for the Bulls.
[Read more about Maynard and the offensive playbook HERE]
Maynard's PERs have fluctuated wildly over the course of the season. Against the Bulldogs, it was 122.70. In the second game against Colorado -- when Maynard threw an overtime fade route to the back of the end zone for a game-winning touchdown to Allen -- the junior transfer from Buffalo posted a 141.76 mark. Against FCS Presbyterian, Maynard's PER was 163.84. From there, it dropped dramatically as the Bears lost three straight. On the road against Washington, he dipped to 129.34. In the next two games, Maynard and the Cal offense sputtered to score 24 points combined in losses to Oregon and the Trojans, as Maynard's PERs followed suit (101.49 vs. the Ducks, 101.62 vs. USC). Maynard hit rock bottom against UCLA (75.72) before recovering to post PERs of 136.53 and 131.85 against the Cougars and the Beavers with just 36 total passing attempts in those two games, and finally a 172.83 rating in the Big Game.
"It's all good. That's where you want to be. You want your numbers to be high, and it all depends on how you play and how comfortable you are, the way you prepare," Maynard said this week. "I've been doing a better job of preparing. I found what works for me. As a team, it's all working out for us. The run game is working great for us right now. They open up more passes for me, and allowing me to stay more calm. We're spreading it around to all the pieces of the puzzle, and it's all coming together."
While things may be 'coming together' over the past three weeks, over the course of the season, the Bears are eighth in the conference in scoring offense (28.3 points per game), with 39 touchdowns (8th) and, perhaps most telling, the third-most field goals, with 15.
[Read more about special teams and listen to The Bear Republic Podcast HERE]
12 of those 15 field goals have come because of stalled red zone drives. Cal is third in the conference in red zone offense (87.2 percent) but of its 41 scores, only 29 have been touchdowns, with 18 coming via the rush and 11 coming via the pass. The Bears are 12-for-14 in red zone field goal attempts.
Arizona State is third in the Pac-12 in red zone defense, holding opponents to a 77.5 percent success rate, with 21 touchdowns (13 pass, eight rush) and 10-of-12 on field goals.
Cal has the seventh-best passing offense in the league (252.8 ypg), has the Pac-12's worst completion percentage (54.6) and gains 7.3 yards per pass -- the third-lowest in the conference. Maynard is eighth in the Pac-12 and No. 71 in the nation in passer efficiency rating (127.0), and has thrown 11 picks (fourth-most in the league) to 16 touchdowns, which could be a boon for the baffling Sun Devils secondary.
Arizona State has the Pac-12's 10th passing defense, allowing 274.0 yards per game. Opponents are completing 64.4 percent of passes against the Sun Devils, the third-highest percentage in the league. However, Arizona State is tied for second in the conference with 13 interceptions, and first in turnover margin with a +11 mark.
"They just play off. They're a stout defense," said senior wide receiver Marvin Jones. "They don't change their defense for anybody, but they do their assignments. How they've got so many interceptions, I don't know, but we're going into this game confident in our passing, rushing, all phases."
Linebacker Colin Parker is tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with three forced fumbles, junior corner Deveron Carr is tied for ninth with 10 break-ups, while sophomore corner Alden Darby and senior safety Clint Floyd each have three picks.
"They're very athletic, very fast," Maynard said. "They have a knack for the ball. They're always looking to get interceptions, and guys have their eyes stuck in the backfield looking at the quarterback, and looking at his eyes, so we have to be on-time, we have to be disciplined in our routes, I'm going to have to put the ball in good places. Sometimes, it's going to be tight for me to get the ball in there, but I have to make smart decisions."
Spreading the ball around -- as Maynard did against the Cardinal -- will be that much more important if Arizona State keys in on Allen.
"It's going to be vital in this game," Maynard said. They have a great linebacking corps and their DBs are pretty good and their D-line is pretty good, too. They're athletic, they're fast, they get to the ball quick, so it's going to be a good game.
"Everybody knows that Keenan's one of our greatest receivers. Some games, they start off double-teaming him, but he's going to come open, regardless."
If the Bears do eschew the pass for the run, they'll find they're fairly evenly matched on the other side of the ball. While the Sun Devils are ninth in the conference in total defense (413.0 yards per game), they rank fifth in rushing defense, holding teams to just 139.0 yards on the ground. Cal has the league's fifth-best rushing attack, averaging 159.9 yards thanks to 1,000-yard rusher Isi Sofele and physical back-up C.J. Anderson.
The Bears gain an average of 4.3 yards per carry -- the sixth-most in the conference -- while the Sun Devils give up 4.0 yards per carry -- again, sixth.
Linebacker Colin Parker is tied for 27th in the Pac-12 with 5.5 stops (60 total) and Floyd is tied with fellow safety Eddie Elder with 58 stops (5.3 per game).
While Burfict may be the tip of the spear -- or, in this case, the pitchfork -- there is a reason that Arizona State is the favorite, despite having lost its last three games: tenacity. The Bears convert on just 40.1 percent of third-down opportunities -- eighth in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils are second in third-down defense, stopping the sticks 33.8 percent of the time. Arizona State is tied for fifth in sacks (26) for 186 yards. Cal has allowed 22 sacks for 141 yards -- fifth-most in the league. The Sun Devils seem to have a tailor-made chisel for every crack in the Bears' offense. The question that Cal can answer in Tempe, the day after Thanksgiving, is: Do they find an identity and move forward, building for next season, or do they once again forget to pack their focus, and falter on the road for the ninth time in two seasons?
"You look at Cal and they probably have as good of talent as anybody in our league on both sides of the football," Erickson said this week. "You look at them defensively and they're extremely physical in their front seven. They've had great recruiting classes the last two or three years. They can dominate. They're big up front offensively. They run the football, their offensive line is good. Their quarterback Maynard is playing a lot better. He played extremely well against Stanford after watching that game. They're a team I'm sure that is pretty disappointed with where they're at also."