Now, I am sure I have mentioned, oh, three or four times during this season, that this game is a must win for Arizona State, but Saturday's game versus California is an absolute must win for the Sun Devils if they want to achieve bowl eligibility.
Whether or not the Sun Devils come out and perform up to expectations is yet to be seen; however, this game stacks up as a big time test for ASU. Dennis Erickson's squad has been fighting against top dogs all season, although this weeks test will come from a different form of animal, in the Golden Bears of California.
California has no doubt one of the top play-makers in the Pacific Ten conference in Jahvid Best at running back and up until a two-game losing streak in early October, he was a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.
ASU's defense struggled last week in the Bay Area against another top running attack in Stanford's Toby Gerhart. Stanford ended up running over, through, and around the Sun Devils' once daunting rushing defense for a grand total of 237 yards. Toby Gerhart alone had 125 yards.
If the Sun Devils are going to some how pull out a win at home against California, ASU will have to slow down the rushing tandem of the aforementioned Best and Shane Vereen, Cal's change-up back.
As an optimist, I feel that ASU had a rough go of it on the road, as usual, and the Sun Devils will regain their previous form of containing the oppositions running game in this game versus the Golden Bears.
But it cannot only be up to the defense to provide the opportunity of a marquee victory, the offense has to show up, and put up some points. Well, or at least put a few long time consuming drives together to provide some rest for the defense, if ASU is to have any success in Saturday's game.
The Arizona State offense has recently become a little healthier than previous games; however, just the player on the field will not make the game closer. The players returning to action must make a big impact on the game. And by players returning, I specifically mean Senior wide receiver Kyle Williams.
Kyle Williams in the early part of the season was quarterback Danny Sullivan's most prolific target, and his go to receiver in clutch situations.
Now, Williams did not dress and did not travel with the team to Palo Alto last weekend, and he was surely missed, as the score and statistics showed. However, other receiver stepped up in his absence, such as T.J. Simpson and the always dependable Chris McGaha.
Now with Williams returning to the starting lineup, the wide receivers have an added punch to their rotation with McGaha, Williams, Simpson, and the big target Gerrell Robinson. But the receivers are not the only area of offense for ASU that needs to "step their game up", the offensive line and running backs will pave the way to a Sun Devil victory.
Although Senior center, Thomas Altieri will be absent from the starting lineup Saturday, Toby Gerhart's brother, Garth will be starting in his place for ASU. Some might say their is a drop off, since Altieri has started for the past two seasons for Erickson's squad, but Gerhart was slated to be the starter coming out of training camp, if it were not for a turf toe injury.
The offensive line will be nearly identical to the five that started in the Sun Devils' huge victory over Washington two Saturday's ago with: Lavauo, Hargis, Gerhart, Good, and N'Junge (from left to right). The only exception being Gerhart at Center.
However, there might be some new faces in the backfield for ASU. During practice this week, Erickson rotated the high-flying Ryan Bass into the running back spot to inject some life, speed, and breakaway ability into the Sun Devils rushing attack. This might be a bright spot for ASU if the youngster can hold onto the football in crucial situations, unlike the Oregon State contest.
The ASU backfield will start with Dimitri Nance, and clearly establishing a running game is a must in this game, if Arizona State wants to have any hope of winning this contest. Nance, Cameron Marshall, and Ryan Bass will be the three headed monster that the California defense must shut down, to end the bowl hopes of Sun Devil nation.
But when talking about championships and bowl eligibility, the defense has to be brought up. The Sun Devil defense has not looked like its usual dominant self as of late, but that trend can only last so long.
ASU's Defensive Coordinator, Craig Bray, has inserted superstar freshman sensation Vontaze Burfict into the starting lineup; however, the High School All-American has to remember to play within the rules. Burfict has been far from "perfect" when it comes to playing within the rules, he has received five personal foul penalties in the past two games, and is on the Pac-10 referee's watch-list for dirty conduct in the past few weeks.
Burfict is an outstanding defensive machine; however, his plays on the field have cost the Sun Devils in the past two weeks with his penalties, leading to countless points for the opposition. His No. 1 goal should not be intimidation, rather it should be stopping the Golden Bears prolific rushing attack of Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen.
But the defense will have to not only stop the rushing attack, but also stop CAL quarterback Kevin Riley from hitting big plays on the ASU defense.
The secondary for ASU has done a better job of stopping long pass plays going for touchdowns in recent weeks, but the defense has yielded a few long runs on trick plays and broken tackles for touchdowns in the past two contests versus Washington and Stanford. This area for ASU has to be the focus on defense. Make the California offense earn their points, and not give up cheap big plays off of penalties or broken tackles.
ASU Key Player to Watch
WR Kyle Williams
In the past, I have focused on the offense for key players, and yet again I will stick with that side of the ball. I know that the defense will have to step up if the Sun Devils want to have any success, but on that side of the ball, it is a whole unit's responsibility to stop the California offense.
So, with Kyle Williams returning from his injury, I expect him to have a breakout game. Especially if the Bears are going to focus on shutting down the ASU running game. But some how, some way, the Sun Devils must establish the rushing attack to open up play action passes to free the speedy play-makers at receiver.
Kyle Williams is a factor, whether you think that or not, he can break a long touchdown off of a screen pass, or a short slant route over the middle, his is definitely a player to watch in his return.
Also, look for ASU to insert Williams back into the return game, as both the punt return and kick return game has struggled immensely in his absence.
CAL Player to Watch
RB Jahvid Best
Everyone in America knows about Jahvid Best's big play ability, and so do the Sun Devils. Success can be achieved against this superstar running back. Oregon and USC showed that in back-to-back games. And the Sun Devils consider themselves in the same conversation, at least defensively with those two schools. So, that task will not be easy but still can be manageable.
The question is, how good is Arizona State's defense against the run? Is it similar in stature to UCLA? Well, the Bruins gave up 105 yards and 1 touchdown to Best in a 45-26 victory for the Bears, so I hope the Sun Devils are a slightly more stout than that.
The defense for ASU will have to bring their "A" game to Frank Kush Field tomorrow on Homecoming if the Sun Devils want to still have the optimism of bowl aspirations.
I have yet to pick against Arizona State this season, and some might call me a "homer," and maybe rightfully so, but this week, this game, I think that the Sun Devils know that they need to have a big game, both offensively and defensively.
So, with that being said, I think that Sullivan and the ASU offense will do enough to keep this game close until the final whistle.
However, I feel that the defense will come up with the big play to secure a victory, with an interception of California quarterback, Kevin Riley in the late stages of the game to set up the Arizona State offense to win.
Final Score: ASU 34 CAL 28
12:30 PT ABC
Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium