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October 3, 2008
For the Arizona State football team, this Saturday's match up against Cal is thus far the most important game of the season.
If the Sun Devils win the game, they will improve to 3-2 overall, 2-0 in the Pac-10, and their misstep against UNLV back on Sept. 13 won't seem like such a season killer.
But if ASU loses, it will be below .500 for the first time in three years and will be in a big hole for the rest of the season.
Over the past two weeks, the Sun Devils have maintained high spirits and had very energized practices.
The players and coaches all know ASU still has a lot to play for and they all believe the team will be able to bounce back from consecutive losses.
"This game is huge for us," linebacker Mike Nixon said. "There's a lot riding on it as far as our season goes.
"I know the character of this team and we won't have any problem bouncing back from those last two games. We're just going to go out there and play like we know we can."
Coach Dennis Erickson said the bye-week was good for his team and that he can't wait to see how it responds when it takes the field Saturday.
"This is a good group," Erickson said. "They're no different of a group than when we started the season. Unfortunately we lost a couple of games so now the resiliency of our players and our coaches is going to be tested.
"[The bye-week] was good preparation. Our players realize that. They realize what's ahead of them. We [practiced] well this week and see what happens Saturday at Cal against one of the best football teams in our conference."
Since their last game nearly two weeks ago, the Sun Devils have made several significant changes to their starting lineup.
Starting middle linebacker Gerald Munns left the team for personal reasons and Morris Wooten will take his place.
Tom Njunge has replaced Adam Tello at right tackle.
True freshman Lawrence Guy will start at defensive tackle opposite David Smith.
And although Erickson has not made this official, it appears another true freshman, Clint Floyd, will start at strong safety.
There are two big factors that could determine how the game goes for ASU: this is the team's first road contest of the year and it could possibly rain in Berkeley on Saturday.
The fact that this is the first road game is so important is because for some of the Sun Devils who figure to see playing time this weekend, this will be their first ever collegiate game away from Sun Devil Stadium.
But those guys aren't nervous. They're excited at the opportunity to go into another team's stadium and possibly leave with a win.
"Back in high school, me and my boys, we used to love away games," linebacker Brandon Magee said. "So I'm excited to go away. We get to go on a plane, that's nice. I can't wait."
And the veterans, the team leaders, they have given the young guys lots of advice on how to handle road trips.
Quarterback Rudy Carpenter told them to treat this weekend like a "business trip."
Right guard Paul Fanaika told the young players that the key to winning road games is mental toughness.
"We've got to get our minds right," Fanainka said. "I just told them that we've got to be sharp out there. We've got to stay mentally focused."
And as far as the rain goes, the Sun Devils aren't concerned.
"Let it rain. Let it pour," Magee said. "It doesn't matter. We're just going to go out there and play how Arizona State football plays."
Head coach: Jeff Tedford (7th season)
2007 season: 7-6
2008 record: 3-1 (1-0 Pac-10)
It's not often a team ranked second in the Pac-10 in yards per game (445.2) and scoring (43.2) is in the midst of a quarterback controversy, but that's exactly where Cal finds itself.
Sophomore db]Kevin Riley[/db] has been the team's starter so far, but Tedford has reportedly given equal practice time to Riley and senior Nate Longshore this week.
Erickson has no idea who will start behind center for the Golden Bears, but he doesn't particularly care either. He said ASU will prepare the same for both quarterbacks.
"Jeff hasn't called me and told me [which quarterback will be starting]," Erickson said. "I've watched both those guys and they both play really well.
"We're not going to treat it any differently. When Riley is in there, they don't do anything that they don't do with Nate. Really what you need to do is just defend what they do offensively and not worry about who their quarterback is."
Regardless of who Tedford chooses, there could be a lot riding on Cal's passing game this weekend as its top rusher, Jahvid Best, will be sidelined with a dislocated elbow.
The sophomore was ranked third in the conference with 105.2 yards per game and has had two touchdown runs of 80 or more yards this season.
Best was also Cal's kick returner and a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. He is leading the Pac-10 in all-purpose yards.
At wide receiver, Cal is not as talented as last years after losing DeSean Jackson to the NFL and the Golden Bears do not have a top-10 receiver in the Pac-10 statistically.
Cal's offensive line has only allowed six sacks in four games and Erickson called the Golden Bears' center Alex Mack "the best center in [college] football."
Cal comes to the line of scrimmage with three down linemen and four linebackers, something ASU hasn't seen much of this year.
But the Sun Devils' offensive line is ready for the challenge. Fanaika said the different defensive scheme will not change the mentality of the offensive front.
"They're aligned differently but we still have to come out and block and be physical," he said. "We still have to do what we're supposed to do week in and week out."
Cal switched to the 3-4 this year from a 4-3 in part because of the strength of its linebackers.
"Those guys are a good group," Carpenter said. "Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder and Eddie Young, those guys are good. They're the strength of their team."
All four linebackers have recorded double-digit tackles this year.
Up front, Cal starts sophomore Cameron Jordan and junior Tyson Alualu at end with sophomore Derrick Hill at nose tackle.
The front seven has helped contribute to the second-best rush defense in the Pac-10 (101.0 ypg), and the third-best total defense (304.2 ypg).
In the Golden Bear defensive backfield, cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson leads the team with three interceptions.
Thompson is also tied for the team lead in sacks.
As a team, Cal has recorded eight interceptions this year, one was returned for a touchdown, and recovered two fumbles.
Usually, we leave special teams out of our game preview, but the Golden Bears' special teams unit has been so impressive this season its hard to ignore.
Cal has turned three blocked kicks (two punts and one field goal) into 21 points in 2008.
ASU has had one punt and one field goal blocked so far this season, and Erickson said his team better shore up it's protection against a special teams unit that is "very explosive."
Also, Thompson returned a punt 73-yards for a touchdown in Cal's win over Colorado State on Sept. 27.
Cal's punter Bryan Anger is ranked No. 15 in the nation and second in the Pac-10 averaging 44.2 yards per punt.
ASU vs. Cal
This will be the 28th time these two programs have met on the football field with ASU holding a 14-13 lead in the series.
ASU beat Cal 31-20 last year in Tempe, but Cal has won four of the last five meetings. Cal has easily handled ASU the last two times the Sun Devils visited Berkley. The Golden Bears won 27-0 in 2004, and 49-21 in 2006.
The last time ASU beat Cal in Memorial Stadium was on Nov. 8, 1997, by a score of 28-21.