TEMPE, Ariz. — Cal will play its eighth game of the season this afternoon at Arizona State, but it's still difficult to determine just how good the Bears are at running the football.
Sure, Cal leads the Pac-10 and ranks 12th nationally in rushing (216.0 ypg), but a further examination shows the Bears have piled up most of their numbers against subpar defenses.
There have been two games this season where the Bears failed to move the ball consistently on the ground, against Oregon and USC. According to this week's NCAA statistics, those are the top two run defenses Cal has played. The Trojans rank fifth in the country (79.86 ypg) and the Ducks are 41st (118.86).
The five other run defenses Cal has faced? Maryland is 65th (141.38 ypg), UCLA is 83rd (159.43 ypg), Minnesota is 96th (177.88), Washington State is 114th (215.43) and Eastern Washington is a Football Championship Subdivision team.
Cal's running attack reaches a crossroads today against the Sun Devils, who feature the country's sixth-ranked run defense (83.43 ypg).
"It's not really worrisome," said Cal tailback Jahvid Best, who averaged 51 yards against Oregon and USC but is averaging 134.6 against everyone else. "I'm up for any challenge. It's just going to be exciting going against those guys, knowing they're one of the best in the country. I'm definitely motivated."
As a team, Cal averaged 81.5 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry against Oregon and USC.
"The last couple of weeks we've had some big plays. You don't do that against these guys," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who compared ASU's defense favorably with USC's. "You're going to have to stay patient. There's going to be some two-yard gains and some eight-yard gains and some zero-yard gains. It's going to be that type of game."
Part of the reason the Bears struggled to run the ball against Oregon and USC was their inability to establish a consistent passing attack. Quarterback Kevin Riley completed just 38 percent of his passes against Ducks and Trojans for an average of 161 yards per game. Those failures were part inaccuracy, part poor pass protection and part ineffective receivers.
"I still think we'll make some big plays because that's what we do," Riley said. "But I don't think they'll come as often and as easy as they have. We'll just have to take our turns, be smart with the football like when we've done a good job this year, and when the opportunity comes up, we'll make them."
While the Sun Devils' defense has been stout, it is coming off its worst performance of the season last Saturday at Stanford when it yielded 237 rushing yards. But Tedford said that's really no reason to give the Bears hope because the Cardinal's running attack is much different from theirs.
"They have a big back (Toby Gerhart) who pounds it in there," Tedford said. "Those aren't our backs. We're not big, pounding backs. We're not going to look at that game and say, 'We're going to do what Stanford did.' We aren't Stanford."