TEMPE – Three weeks ago, the California Golden Bears were dreaming about a national title.
Now they’d simply like to win a game. Back-to-back losses have dropped the Bears to No. 17 from No. 2.
Meanwhile, Arizona State has leaped from No. 18 to No. 7 and inherited all of Cal’s national ambitions.
Two programs headed in opposite directions collide in the desert on Saturday night.
“We’re very realistic about where we’re at and the direction that we’re trying to go in,” Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. “We’re going to get tested. Our team knows that. We’re playing who I think is one of the best teams in the country.”
For ASU (7-0, 4-0 Pac-10), the game is an opportunity to make a national statement and keep climbing in the rankings. For Cal (5-2, 2-2 Pac-10), it’s the last chance to salvage a Rose Bowl berth.
“I think it’s important that we bounce back, we regroup and that we still have confidence in who we are and what we’re all about,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “We’re a couple of plays away from being undefeated. It’s disappointing; there’s no question about it.”
The game might draw a rare sellout in 71,706-seat Sun Devil Stadium.
Erickson’s 7-0 start is the best in school history. He’s the first coach to win his first four Pac-10 games at ASU.
The fifth looks as if it will be far tougher than the others. ASU’s first four conference opponents are a combined 4-13.
“Tape doesn’t lie on California,” Erickson said. “They’re an extremely good football team, and obviously they can’t afford to lose another game in the league if they want to have any opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl. So we’re going to have (to) play pretty good, I’m afraid.”
Both of Cal’s losses came down to the final minutes.
Starting quarterback Nate Longshore was sidelined by an ankle injury in a 31-28 loss to Oregon State in Berkeley on Oct. 13. The game ended when Longshore’s replacement, Kevin Riley, was tackled deep in Beavers territory and the clock ran out before Cal’s kick team could attempt a potential tying field goal.
A week later, Cal trailed UCLA by 2 late in the fourth quarter when Longshore threw an interception that was returned 76 yards for a touchdown. Final score: UCLA 30, Cal 21.
“We just need to change a couple of things and we will be all right,” wide receiver Robert Jordan said. “It’s not like we’re getting blown out. It’s not like other teams are outplaying us.”
ASU has had only one close call. It went the Sun Devils’ way when Washington State missed a late field goal in a 23-20 ASU victory on Oct. 6.
Otherwise, the Sun Devils have mostly cruised against a schedule ranked 97th by the NCAA. They’ve faced little adversity, although that changed when starting tailback Ryan Torain was lost for the season with a toe injury.
The bruising 6-foot-1, 213-pound senior had started six of the seven games for the Sun Devils, rushing for 553 yards and five touchdowns. He caught seven passes for 100 yards and two scores.
Torain will be replaced by a tandem of Keegan Herring, a 5-10, 186-pound junior from Peoria and Dimitri Nance, a 5-10, 204-pound sophomore from Euless, Texas.
Herring will start against Cal, but Nance is expected to see a lot of action.
“There’s a little bit more pressure on me,” Herring said. “The guys want to see me step up.”