Rudy Carpenter, Ryan Torain and the gang were fat and happy after rattling off three non-conference wins, including a rare OOC road win at Colorado. They had outscored their opponents 108-38.
And then the Golden Bears smacked the Devils in the mouth with 35 points in 11:34. The game was 42-14 Cal at the half, and as we saw afterwards, the season was pretty much over.
Needless to say, it's quite a different situation the Devils are in as they travel to the East Bay to take on a much different Cal team. ASU needs a win to get this 2008 season, which started with such promise and hope, back on track before a showdown with mighty USC at the Coliseum next week.
The Devils broke a four-game losing streak to the Bears last year at Sun Devil Stadium, but that night, the Devils were 7-0 and Cal was two weeks removed from blowing a chance at #1 against Oregon State and one week removed from an embarrassing loss at UCLA.
This year, the Sun Devils are riding a two game losing streak into this showdown while the Bears have seemingly regained some swagger after losing on the road to a Maryland team that has turned out to be better than any of us expected. Both teams are severely banged up though, which is the overarching theme to these keys to victory for Arizona State.
1) Shut down Shane Vereen. Sure, Jahvid Best is out with a dislocated elbow (which on a side note, OUCH!). However, their backup is only averaging 8.0 yards per carry. Vereen is a much different back than Best; he doesn't dart and weave like Best does, but he's certainly a handful. He'll substantially touch the ball with the Bears being a bit unsettled at quarterback (see below) and the Devils run defense needs a shot of confidence after being embarrassed by Frank Summers and Knowshon Moreno in back-to-back weeks.
2) Get to Riley/Longshore. Kevin Riley, who has started every game this season, has been underwhelming in his last two starts in terms of his decision making (Maryland) and simply his numbers (Colorado State). On the other hand, demoted former starter Nate Longshore performed admirably in mop-up duty against the Rams, tossing two touchdowns. Regardless of who is under center for the Golden Bears, there has to be more pressure. Neither of California's quarterbacks are especially mobile, Vereen isn't a stud blocking back and All-World center "The Secret World of" Alex Mack is out. All of those add up to Dexter Davis and Luis Vasquez getting into the backfield consistently.
3) Force turnovers. ASU has three interceptions this season, and they were all in one game. The secondary has not been able to make plays in the Devils' three other games and guys like Terell Carr and Omar Bolden need to get back up on the horse and create. Bolden has had back-to-back terrible performances against UNLV and Georgia and taking advantage of Cal's inexperienced route-runners may be a good shot in the arm. Troy Nolan's production has dropped 981,234,548% since last season and he'll need to step up as well.
If ASU can take care of those three things, the Devils should walk out of Strawberry Canyon with a victory. However, another flat start and lifeless defensive effort will leave Arizona State going into SoCal with a giant "2-3" stamped on their foreheads.