Cal’s home game against Arizona State on Saturday may be the defining game of the Golden Bears’ season.
In preseason, this game appeared to provide an easy victory for the Golden Bears, but now it seems like a significant challenge based on the Sun Devils’ unexpected success in their first four games.
This game will give the best indication yet of how good Cal is — or can be.
Cal survived its two-game road swing against ranked opponents with most of its confidence intact. Although it lost both games, the Golden Bears were in position to win both in the fourth quarter.
The Bears’ inability to win those games may say something about Cal’s ability to finish off games — which was an issue in the season-opening loss to Nevada as well.
Quite simply, Cal has been in position to win all four of its games in the fourth quarter, but failed in three of them to come up with the big plays.
Arizona State, surprisingly, may present the biggest challenge of the season for the Cal defense. The Sun Devils were expected to battle Colorado for the bottom spot in the Pac-12 Conference South Division based on the talent they lost, including quarterback Brock Osweiler, who’s now in the NFL. But they rank 15th in the country in scoring, averaging 41.3 points a game, and that includes a 37-7 victory on Sept. 22 over a Utah team whose strength is its defense.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly, a first-year starter, has been outstanding, completing 72.5 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
The biggest issue for Cal will be pass protection. Quarterback Zach Maynard has been sacked 13 times in the past two games, and he showed his frustration at the end of the USC game. Meanwhile, ASU has 14 sacks in its first four games, so the Sun Devils are very capable of applying pressure.
If the game were played in Tempe, Cal would be a clear underdog, but playing the game in Berkeley makes it virtually a toss-up game — one the Golden Bears need to win to avoid slipping to 1-4 and seeing their bowl chances start to disappear.