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Cal, Arizona State try to get their groove back

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

It hasn't been an easy season for Arizona State quarterback Danny Sullivan, but often adversity brings enlightenment.

Sullivan, it seems, understands the Pac-10 -- and college football for that matter -- perfectly.

"You can be a good team the first week and completely change the next week just based on who you are playing and how they are trying to exploit you," he said.

California, which visits Sullivan and the Sun Devils on Saturday (3:30 EST, ABC), certainly understands that. The Bears were ranked sixth in the country and then -- whammo! -- consecutive losses to Oregon and USC by a combined count of 72-6 slapped them onto the slag heap of also-rans.

But, quietly, the Bears have won two in a row and may be poised to make a run.

Arizona State, meanwhile, went to Stanford last weekend to prove it was a conference contender and it ended up getting pushed around on both sides of the ball. A defense that had been ranked among the nation's elite surrendered 473 yards, including 237 yards rushing.

"Physically, Stanford kicked our rear ends," said coach Dennis Erickson, cutting directly to the chase.

Still, there are plenty of examples of Pac-10 teams righting themselves after bad moments. See Oregon after the Boise State debacle. See Oregon State just about every year.

If Arizona State upsets the Bears, its bowl hopes brighten considerably. If Cal wins, it may re-enter the national rankings -- the Bears are 24th in the BCS standings -- and still could become a player in the conference race.

When Cal coach Jeff Tedford looks at film of Arizona State, he doesn't see the team that went belly-up vs. Stanford, particularly on defense. He sees a potentially dominating unit. That's why he's preaching patience to his offense, which has relied on big plays instead of long drives much of the year.

"We've had some big plays, especially this last week running the ball, (but) ripping off big chunks, well, you don't do that against these guys," Tedford said. "You're going have to stay patient and there are going to be some 2-yard gains and some 8-yard gains and some 0-yard gains."

Patience will be particularly important for both quarterbacks. While Cal's Kevin Riley seems to have rediscovered his rhythm after a pair of poor performances against Oregon and USC, Sullivan continues to hear from fans who'd prefer it if he would sit down and allow the "quarterback of the future," true freshman Brock Osweiler, to take over.

If things don't come easy early in the game, the real measure in Sun Devil Stadium might be which quarterback loses his patience, starts to force the issue and gets himself and his team into trouble.

"That Oregon game, things started to fall apart and people were pressing," Riley said. "You can't press when things go wrong, you've just got to come back and bounce back and make some plays."

Sullivan's situation isn't helped by nagging hamstring injuries to two of his top three receivers, Kyle Williams and Kerry Taylor, as well tailback Dimitri Nance's troublesome shoulder. Sullivan, in fact, sprained his knee late against Stanford and was forced from the game, but he practiced this week and should be good to go.

Erickson said the experience at Stanford was "humbling," but he pointed out that plenty of teams embarrass themselves at least once during a season.

"We're not the only one that has suffered some kind of setback like this in our league," he said. "There are other teams that have had that happen to them. How you react to that setback is the key, not the setback itself."

That's this game's measure. Both these teams have faced disappointment and diminishing possibilities, but neither's season is a lost cause.

At least not yet. It starts with mustering a winning effort on Saturday.

Said Erickson, "I've said this is a very resilient group and we'll see how resilient this week."