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October 19, 2010

Cal up next for ASU in wacky Pac-10

In this dizzying, break-neck era of social networking, instant analysis, filled with more opinions than one could possibly ever process, flies across numerous interfaces as strained retinas struggle to keep up.

Sometimes it takes the simplest of messages to stand out.

Take this ode to the transitive property that circulated the Twitter realm following a typical chaotic Saturday in college football: "USC>Cal>UCLA>Texas>Nebraska>Washington>USC?" Makes perfect sense, right?

As the parity of the Pac-10 conference continues to unfold, ASU's upcoming opponent, the Golden Bears -- one of the agents of the aforementioned chaos -- are as difficult a conundrum to unravel as exists in the league, like a distant light in the night sky that could be a world-altering UFO or the just the result of a couple kids playing with firecrackers.

"They're like all of us in this league," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said of Cal. "You don't know what's going to happen one week to the next. We're all kind of like that other than the way Oregon has been playing. You just never know what's going to happen."

The Bears fit the bill.

A week after destroying UCLA -- which was coming off a monumental win over Texas -- Cal flopped on the road Saturday at USC, taking it on the chin on the short end of a 48-14 blowout. This is the same Cal team which outscored its first two opponents 104-10 only to lose by three touchdowns to Western Athletic Conference foe Nevada. To follow was a one-point loss on the road at Arizona, where the Bears defense held the high-powered Wildcat offense to 10 points, seven of which came on the game's final drive.

UFO or firecracker?

Erickson isn't sure yet either, but he was quick to point out during his weekly press conference Monday that the Jeff Tedford-coached program isn't short on talent.

For Cal, the offense starts with Shane Vereen, who will become just the latest in an already long list of explosive running backs the ASU defense has faced this season. The junior has performed admirably in replacing first-round NFL draft pick Jahvid Best, averaging a third-best Pac-10 mark of 105 yards rushing per game.

"When you talk about [Oregon's LaMichael] James and [Oregon State's Jacquizz] Rodgers, you've got to talk about him in the same breath," Erickson said of Vereen, whose eight touchdowns are third-most in the conference. "He's a guy, obviously, that you've got to attempt to slow down a little bit. He's really a mainstay of their offense."

Also a familiar fixture on that unit is senior quarterback Kevin Riley, whose up and downs this season have made him, at times, as difficult to figure out as the team he plays for. Riley is currently fifth among Pac-10 quarterbacks in passing efficiency. But while he has struggled at times, Erickson pointed to Riley's resiliency as his greatest strength, providing a reminder of the quarterback's effort against ASU last season when Riley shook off struggles to lead Cal to an 11-play, 74-yard game-winning late in the fourth quarter.

"You hit him and you hit him, and then all of a sudden last year he took it (about) 80 yards to beat us," Erickson said.

On defense, Cal is much improved this season under first-year coordinator Clancy Pendergast -- though the 100 points yielded in the losses to Nevada and USC suggest the Bears still have plenty of work to do. Erickson pointed out linebacker Mike Mohamed and cornerback Darian Hagan as Cal defensive players who cause matchup problems.

With both teams sporting 3-3 records, Saturday's game in Berkley, Calif., will likely determine where each team floats in the Pac-10's punch bowl of parity.

As Erickson stated simply: "It's going to be an interesting game."

Carr update

Erickson said the team is still waiting a couple more weeks to determine if sophomore cornerback Deveron Carr's injured shoulder can be healed through rehab, thus prolonging a necessary surgery until after the season and paving the way for a possible comeback this year. Whether he has surgery in the coming weeks or after the season, Erickson said, Carr will miss spring practice.

Erickson said he has been pleased with the performance of redshirt freshman Osahon Irabor, who missed all of last season with a wrist injury, in place of Carr.

"He's played pretty well," Erickson said. "He's a very aggressive player and he does well against the run. He makes some mistakes, as young players make, but he makes them very aggressively."

Backup switch

Sophomore quarterback Brock Osweiler has been experiencing back pain the past couple weeks, Erickson said, and will likely be supplanted as the No. 2 signal-caller Saturday by junior Samson Szakacsy, who received the majority of the second-team reps during the bye week.

Szakacsy, who hasn't played yet this season, has practiced as the quarterback in certain goal-line situations in recent weeks, and Erickson has said Szakacsy could be used in that capacity during the game. Either way, the cerebral California native said last week that he's glad to be in the mix.

"I feel like a little kid again running around out here," he said.


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