Cal a narrow favorite in nearly-even matchup with ASU football

Quarterback

Despite sitting out a season and playing in a new system, redshirt junior Steven Threet is 22nd in the country in total passing yards through just six games. Threet seems to be getting more comfortable each week, making quicker reads and throws in the deep and intermediate areas of the field.

Senior Kevin Riley leads a schizophrenic Cal offense and has proven to be a solid Pac-10 quarterback. Riley threw for 350 yards and led the Golden Bears (3-3, 1-2 Pac-10) to a comeback last year against ASU despite getting hurried and hit much of the contest.

Edge: Even

Running back

With the addition of lightning bolt freshman Kyle Middlebrooks to the backfield, the Sun Devils (3-3, 1-2) have three explosive runners at their disposal. Not many teams offer up that kind of speed.

Junior Shane Vereen, taking over for now Detroit Lions stud Jhavid Best, is 19th in the country in yards per game. Vereen is in the mold of the other explosive Pac-10 backs and is hard to corral both behind his linemen and in space and he has the ability to outrun the secondary when he gets there.

Edge: Even

Wide Receiver

Junior Mike Willie was Threet’s primary target against UW with five catches, 96 yards and a key touchdown snare. Even redshirt junior A.J. Pickens got in the act, catching two passes on a critical, game-changing, late-second quarter drive. Eleven ASU receivers have catches on the season. With Willie and junior Gerell Robinson, the Sun Devils have two legitimate big targets.

Golden Bear junior Marvin Jones is a fantastic receiver who excels at catching the ball at its highest point and will hold onto it after hard contact. Freshman Keenan Allen, a legitimate five star recruit, provides the Golden Bear offense with big plays, often catching the ball on screens and utilizing his breathtaking lateral agility.

Edge: Even

Offensive Line/Tight end

Redshirt freshman Evan Finkenberg made a positive impression at left tackle against UW. It will be interesting to see whom ASU coach Dennis Erickson starts at right tackle, between junior transfer Aderious Simmons and redshirt junior Dan Knapp. Erickson has more depth available to him than at any point the last three seasons.

Cal starts four upperclassmen on its offensive line, and has only yielded 10 sacks on the year. The Golden Bears’ offense has been incredibly inconsistent throughout the year, though how much of that has to do with its offensive line is debatable.

Edge: Even

Defensive Line

Junior defensive tackle Lawrence Guy has excelled thus far and the disruptive tackle often garners double-teams, which would seem to give other defensive lineman penetration opportunities. Arguably ASU’s biggest struggle has been its lack of a pass rush, as it has only accumulated seven sacks in six games. Freshman Junior Onyeali could be the one-man answer, as he disrupted Jake Locker and the Huskies’ passing game two weeks ago.

Cal senior Cameron Jordan has three sacks and four tackles for loss on the season, but the Cal front was dismantled last week against USC, giving up close to six yards per carry. The Golden Bears’ defensive front was also in part responsible for allowing over 300 yards on the ground to Nevada earlier in the season.

Edge: Even

Linebackers

Clearly the Sun Devils’ biggest strength on defense, ASU goes six deep at linebacker, with two seemingly above average players at each position. The depth allows defensive coordinator Craig Bray to keep fresh players in at all times. Should Sun Devil linebackers continue to improve their discipline, both in their gap assignments and after the whistle, the unit can be dominant.

Cal’s duo of senior Mike Mohamed and junior Mychal Kendricks might be the best in the conference. Kendricks has an astounding 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the season.

Edge: Even

Secondary

The loss of redshirt sophomore Deveron Carr to a shoulder injury against Oregon State was a significant blow because Carr was seemingly shutting his side of the field down. Erickson likes the physicality of his replacement, redshirt freshman Osahon Irabor. With senior Max Tabach thrust not only into the starting role, but also into a leadership role, the Sun Devils hope to find some stability in the secondary, a place where they have yielded big plays much of the year.

The Golden Bears gave up 357 yards to sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley and the Trojans last week, but shutdown UCLA and UA’s passing offenses. Much like the Golden Bears’ offense, the Cal defense has been up-and down almost on a week-to-week basis but its pass defense remains No. 34 in the nation.

Edge: Cal

Special Teams

Redshirt senior kicker Thomas Weber continues to be an enigma, missing two kicks against UW. The former Lou Groza award-winner, who was injured most of last year, has regained his power, but may still be seeking to regain his confidence. Senior punter Trevor Hankins and the return game remain amongst the best in the country.

The Golden Bears’ special teams unit does not stand out as a particular strength, though if Vareen is given surprise kick return duties, which was part of his role behind Best the last two years, the Golden Bears have a legitimate threat.

Edge: ASU

Overall Edge: Cal

Both teams have much better talent than their records indicate given that Cal lost a one-point game at UA despite outplaying them much of the contest, and the Sun Devils lost two games to top 10 teams despite outplaying them for the majority of the games. Cal gets the home-field edge, though any outcome, whether it is a close game or a blowout for either side, would not be of much surprise.

Reach the reporter at nick.ruland@asu.edu