TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State’s well-documented road woes have been widespread over the last decade, but perhaps no locale has been as unrelenting in that time as Berkeley, Calif.
Memorial Stadium has been ASU’s personal house of pain over the last decade-plus, and the Sun Devils return to try to exorcise their demons there Saturday.
ASU has not won in Berkeley since a 28-21 decision in 1997 under late coach Bruce Snyder. Since that win, ASU has gone 0-5 at Cal, losing those games by an average of nearly 20 points.
Clearly, Memorial Stadium has not been kind to the Sun Devils (3-1), but first-year coach Todd Graham this week dismissed the program’s history on the road against Cal.
“I don’t think about that,” Graham said. “I guess when you’re involved in coaching a football team, what you did last year has nothing to do with what you’re going to do this year.”
Instead, Graham focused on how difficult it is to win on the road in general, something ASU fans know well given that the Sun Devils have compiled a winning road record just once in the last decade.
“The hardest thing you have to do is win on the road,” Graham said. “It’s the hardest thing in college football. We do focus on that. I’ll probably focus more on correcting the mistakes we had from our first road game more than I will focus on what we did in 1999. The reason why you have something like that is because it’s hard to win on the road.”
Players, too, have declined to offer anything in the way of specifics for ASU’s woes in Berkeley. For a few, such as fifth-year seniors linebacker Brandon Magee and cornerback Deveron Carr, this will be the third trip to Berkeley in their careers.
Carr knows well how ASU has struggled on the road against Cal. He was there two seasons ago for a 50-17 shellacking that was over as fast as it started. But the past, Carr said, isn’t on his mind; he’s only thinking of this game and the ones after it.
“I think about it as another game, just like we’d play against USC or against Oregon,” Carr said. “Just because we’ve lost to them in the past doesn’t really stir up anything for me. I feel like you prep for every game the same way.
“We can’t let what happened in the past get us down.”
ASU’s struggles against Cal in recent seasons have not, however, been limited to the road. ASU has defeated Cal just once in the teams’ last nine meetings, that during a 10-3 2007 season.
Getting beyond all the series history, though, Saturday’s game has implications for this season. A win, Graham said, could be a monumental boost for the program now and in the future. Graham shared earlier this season that he believed the first five games of his tenure to be “critical” to the program’s overall success.
“I looked at the schedule at the beginning of the year, just being honest with you, and I looked at Utah and Cal and said ‘That’ll determine our season,'” Graham said. “So that’s how important this game is.”
A win would have ASU two wins from bowl eligibility with seven games left to play. It could also help sway recruiting targets, particularly if ASU wins its next game, on the road against Coloardo, to set up a marquee matchup with Oregon on Oct. 18.
The reach of Saturday’s result may go far beyond the day, but the focus this week for ASU has been figuring out how to beat Cal and not beat itself. In a blowout win over Utah last weekend, the Devils avoided the miscues that cost them a game in Missouri a week earlier. They’ll have to do the same this week against an opportunistic Cal offense.
Graham on Thursday raved about Cal’s offensive playmakers, a few of which he said have the ability to score every time they touch the ball. Graham more than once this week called Cal junior receiver Keenan Allen one of the best in the nation and also lauded a deep running back group not that different than ASU’s.
“I really believe that this is the best personnel that we’ve played against to this point,” Graham said. “Their skill people are really, really good. … We’ve got to make sure we don’t give up cheap ones and get takeaways.”
That’s where ASU’s yet-untested secondary comes in. The unit, currently the best statistically in the Pac-12, has only faced an opponent’s starting quarterback for 15 snaps this season due to various injuries. Against Cal junior Zach Maynard, the secondary will get its test, particularly with Allen downfield.
“They’ve got a lot of playmakers on (the offensive) side of the ball,” Carr said. “All you can pretty much do is play, because they’re good all around. Their run game is good and their passing game is good. You just focus on trying shut both of them down and let the best team win.”
As much the Sun Devils are preparing for a tough test on defense, they might be able to force the Golden Bears into a one-dimensional attack, as they did against Utah. A depleted offensive line, which could be missing two starters but will definitely be missing at least one, does not bode well for Cal against an ASU defense leading the nation in tackles for loss. Nor does it bode well for Maynard, who has been sacked 13 times over the past two weeks.
“We’re going to have to make sure we keep Zach protected and give him time to throw the ball,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “That’s going to be key with all the tackles for loss. That’s not just in the pass game but in the run game.”
If ASU can pressure Maynard and stop Cal’s run game, the Golden Bears offense may never get going at all. Further, pressure on Maynard could force mistakes and give ASU the takeways Graham is looking for.
More than anything offensively, defensively or otherwise, ASU must match Cal’s energy from the get-go. In Columbia two weeks ago, ASU failed to match Missouri’s intensity and found itself sputtering for most of three quarters en route to a 24-20 loss.
“Every home team, that’s when they’re their most passionate, when they’re at home,” Graham said. “So you have to match that and exceed their passion and their intensity. We didn’t do that (against Missouri). We kind of came out like we were just going to show up and win, and that ain’t what happens.”