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Pac-12 opener: Prediction for Arizona State Sun Devils vs. Cal Golden Bears

Posted: 12:06 PM, Sep 23, 2016
Updated: 2016-09-24 18:36:15-04

The Arizona State Sun Devils are just one of four remaining undefeated Pac-12 teams entering conference play.

If they want to stay that way, they'll have to overcome a familiar foe when the Cal Golden Bears come to town Saturday night. Cal is 2-1 on the season and coming off a huge 50-43 home win over then-No. 11 Texas, while ASU is 3-0 after narrowly avoiding a meltdown at UTSA last week.

SEE ALSO: ASU reporter Derek Hagan previews the Sun Devils' Pac-12 schedule

The Sun Devils will be wearing their "Maroon Monsoon" uniforms Saturday and are asking fans to wear maroon, as well.

Here are three questions and a prediction for ASU vs. Cal, which begins Saturday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

1. Can the Devils do anything to slow Webb?

Two weeks ago, the Sun Devils defeated Texas Tech despite surrendering 540 passing yards and five touchdowns to Red Raiders QB Patrick Mahomes.

On Saturday, ASU will face the man whom Mahomes replaced at Texas Tech, Cal transfer Davis Webb, who led the Red Raiders to a Holiday Bowl upset of the Devils three years ago.

Thanks to Webb, Cal's passing game hasn't missed a beat without No. 1 2016 NFL Draft pick Jared Goff. Webb, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior, is second in the nation (behind Mahomes) in passing yards per game (453) and passing touchdowns (13), and he threw for nearly 400 yards, four scores and no interceptions last weekend vs. Texas.

ASU will get a defensive boost Saturday with the return of linebacker Salamo Fiso, who missed the first three games due to a violation of program standards. Still, ASU is dead last in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. Can the Devils to anything to slow Webb and Cal's ridiculous passing attack?

2. Can Kalen and Demario help the Devils keep up?

Cal is as susceptible on the ground as ASU is through the air. The Golden Bears are the nation's third-worst team against the run, allowing an average of 297 rushing yards through three games and a conference-high 10 rushing touchdowns.

Enter the Sun Devils' two-headed backfield of juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, who are third and fifth, respectively, in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Ballage is second in the nation in rushing touchdowns (nine) thanks largely to his record-setting performance against Texas Tech, while the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Richard has been the Devils' workhorse, grinding out an average of 94 rushing yards per game.

Of course, Cal will also have to account for the speed of ASU's dual threat QB, sophomore Manny Wilkins, who has 191 rushing yards through three games, good for eighth in the conference. Will the Devils' ground game be able to match the Bears' aerial attack?

3. Who wins the turnover battle?

This is a crucial question going into any football game, but ASU coach Todd Graham emphasized this point during this week's series of press conferences, and for good reason.

Entering their Pac-12 opener, the Sun Devils have a conference-worst minus-3 turnover margin this season. They needed a late rally at UTSA last weekend largely because they coughed the ball up three times without earning a single takeaway. Cal, meanwhile, is fourth in the Pac-12 in turnover margin (plus-4) and was plus-2 in its win over the Longhorns. 

In order to keep up with Cal, ASU will have to be at least even with the Bears in the turnover department. Can the Devils force some Bear mistakes while limiting their own?

Prediction:

ASU has the home-field edge against a Cal team that as nearly as poor defensively as Texas Tech is. Also, Webb was a bit shaky in his only road game of the season; he threw three interceptions at San Diego State, though that was largely because he threw 72 passes as his Bears were playing catchup for most of the game.

I think this game comes down to Wilkins and whether he avoids mistakes in the same way he did two weeks ago against Texas Tech, or whether he struggles like he did last week at UTSA. Cal is a bit better against the pass than the Red Raiders were, but that won't matter if ASU is able to run all over the Bears without turning the ball over.

This is a tough one. Two weeks ago, I went with Texas Tech, and I was wrong. This time, I'll go with the home team, which is as healthy as it's been all season and has had a chip on its shoulder since last week's near-disaster in San Antonio. Graham will have the Sun Devils ready.

ASU 45, Cal 42