SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- California heads into this Friday's season finale with a chance to spoil Arizona State's chances at appearing in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game. The Sun Devils (6-5, 4-4 in Pac-12) are certainly not doing themselves any favors, having lost their past three games.
In this podcast, the gang goes over last week's 31-28 Big Game loss to Stanford, and preview this week's game, and we even get into a little bit of recruiting, so be sure to stay tuned through the whole podcast.
As a companion piece to the podcast, BearTerritory spoke with the Bears' special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk to preview the special teams match-up for Friday's game.
More than perhaps in any other game this season, special teams will play a big role in deciding the contest for both teams, with Arizona State boasting the second-best kickoff return team in the conference (24.2 yards per return) and the second-best punt return unit, which averages 15.3 yards per return.
"I'm just trying to put an overall capsule together for our players as we go into the tail end of the week, but their punt return and their kickoff return guy - their primary returner, No. 32, Jamal Miles -- he's exceptional," Genyk said.
Along with ranking ninth in the conference in receptions per game (5.2), Miles is deadly in the punt return game, averaging 16.6 yards to lead the conference. Miles is also a crack kickoff returner, ranking second in the league with an average of 27.0 yards.
"He's sixth in the country in kickoff return and 19th in the country in punt return," Genyk said. "They provide a significant return challenge, similar to Oregon and USC, so it's a big challenge for our punt team that we, first of all, protect, because they will come after one punt a game, and then, they do a good job of staying with their men in the blocking scheme.
"More than anything, Jamal has a very good knack for making the first man miss, and then, accelerating through your primary coverage wave, and all of the sudden, bad things can happen, if you're a Cal Bear fan."
The Bears rank ninth in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage, with a 60.9-yard average being cut to a 41.4-yard net average. While Cal is second in the league in punting with a 44.4-yard average, the Bears are seventh in punt coverage.
"We have to have great operation time and great hang time," Genyk said. "I think that we have improved a lot in that area, because we're ranked eighth in the country in net punting, so we've got some young guys that are really performing at a high level, with speed. We've got Stefan McClure and Avery Sebastian. They're making a lot of plays for us, and really tackling well. We're sorry to lose Michael Coley and Will Kapp to injury in the last couple weeks."
With those two key tacklers out, Cal will have to turn to scheme and the big leg of senior punter Bryan Anger in order to solve Miles in the punt game.
"If you can reflect on what we did against USC and Oregon, we really tried to prevent them from getting the ball in ideal locations, so you're trying to kick the ball more to the sidelines, trying to get it on the ground a little bit and when the ball is in the middle of the field, we have to have excellent hang time. It's really a good challenge for Bryan in his last regular season game. I think he's improved in that regard from last year."
Anger is 16th in the nation in punting average, with 44.4 yards per drive, and is once again a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award.
"It's important for him, for Cal and our team, but also for him in the future, that he understands the value of placement and hang time and all those things," Genyk said.
On the Bears' side of the ball, things are a bit less rosy when it comes to returns. Without senior Coleman Edmond in the mix due to a calf injury, junior tailback Mike Manuel has come in to serve as a second kickoff returner, alongside freshman Brendan Bigelow.
On six returns this season, Manuel has averaged 21.0 yards -- tops among Cal players with at least two take-backs -- which could help the Bears to explot the conference's seventh kickoff coverage unit.
"Mike has shown some flashes, I think, in the Washington State game at tailback, as far as being able to break some tackles, being able to get yards after contact, and he also is an excellent off-returner," Genyk said. "Our last two opponents, they kicked the ball to both sides of the field, and you really are not aware of where it's going to go until right before the kick. Therefore, we really felt Mike was good with ball security and getting yards after contact and also, if Bigelow does get the ball, he's a good off-returner, which means he's able to block the most dangerous man, prior to getting to the key area of blocking."
Punt returns have been a bit of a bugaboo for Cal this season, as the Bears are ranked eighth in the conference in that category, averaging 5.3 yards. Arizona State, however, is eighth in the Pac-12 in punting (37.4 net, 41.4 average) and tied for fourth in punt coverage, allowing just 2.1 yards per return.
To aid senior Marvin Jones and the punt return game as a whole, Genyk, over the last several games, has altered his scheme a bit to get the ball into the hands of sophomore playmaker Keenan Allen.
"It's a scheme situation," Genyk said. "If you look back to the USC game, USC's punter attempted to spray the ball all over the field, so when we have a punter who does that -- and the same thing was true with Oregon State -- you want to make sure that you field the ball and it's not bouncing around. That's the first aspect of having two returners. Then, of course, when you have Keenan back there, he's just such a dynamic returner and can make so much happen. But, also, he's a very good blocker, as we saw in the USC game. It's a combination. It really depends on the scheme that we're facing, and if it merits having two returners, and if so, we'd love to have Keenan back there."
While the Sun Devils have not blocked a kick or a punt this season, they may present the same kind of rush as teams Cal faced earlier in the season which were able to get through protection and make life hard on senior placekicker Giorgio Tavecchio.
"Absolutely," Genyk said. "I think that they do a very good job in that regard, and have for a number of years. They do a great job of coming up, fixing on your operation and getting to the top of the kick as it crosses the line of scrimmage, so we really have to be firm."
While Tavecchio is second in the conference in field goal percentage (83.3), he is ninth when it comes to point-after attempts, missing six on the season.
"I think we have improved in that area in the last three weeks," Genyk said. "It is interesting that Giorgio's doing great in field goals, but we've had our issues on PATs.
"I think there are really two categories. I think we did have two or three low-trajectory kicks off of grass, where Giorgio kind of hit the ground first, instead of the ball, so we did have some low-trajectory kicks. Then, also, our protection wasn't good enough. Our interior line, we've made some personnel changes in there, and it took us a while. It was a good protection scheme, and we had some personnel adjustments, and I really believe that, in the last three weeks, we've kind of settled in on the personnel at the guard and the tackle positions, and it's really helped us a lot."