Strong tailback key to Cal's offense

Updated: October 31, 2003, 2:01 AM ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- With tailback Adimchinobe Echemandu an average game away from a 1,000-yard season, California's offense looks to be a plus against Arizona State.

The Sun Devils practiced with two game plans all week because of Andrew Walter's sore right ankle, and still don't know for sure if the ligaments will hold up. If the record-setting junior has to sit out, freshman Sam Keller will start.

Walter was hurt in the second quarter of a 20-13 loss at UCLA last week. Keller completed 11 of 21 passes for 79 yards in relief, but his efficiency fell off noticeably in the second half, when Arizona State played without converting a third down.

"I think he did very well with it," Walter said. "He's going to learn exponentially. The next time he goes out there on the field, there won't be nearly as many things go wrong, and that's just the way it is with a young quarterback."

Cal coach Jeff Tedford didn't think it would matter which quarterback lined up.

"I'm sure they'll run their offense with either guy," Tedford said. "I know they're very high on Sam Keller. He's a young guy, but he's very talented and poised. Just watching last week, he didn't seem to get rattled.

"Obviously, Andrew brings a lot more experience and comfort level with their offense."

In any case, the Golden Bears (4-5, 2-2 Pac-10) appear to be holding the aces. They have a healthy veteran in Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown for 1,307 yards and seven touchdowns against three interceptions. He will face Arizona State (4-4, 1-3) with a string of 57 passes -- two games' worth -- since throwing his last pick.

"They are a very efficient team, meaning they don't beat themselves," Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter said. "They haven't had a turnover for two games, and their quarterback is playing very smart -- he doesn't do anything foolish, he puts the ball out there on time, he's hard to sack because he gets rid of it."

And then there is Echemandu, who ran for a career-high 201 yards and three TDs on 30 carries in a 42-14 rout of Arizona on Saturday. He has 881 yards on the season, going over 100 yards rushing three times in the last four games.

The 225-pound ball carrier's biggest efforts seem to come against strong opposition -- Echemandu had 147 yards on Sept. 27, when Cal handed No. 3 Southern California its only loss, winning by three points in triple overtime.

"I first noticed him when I was watching him against USC's defense, and just how hard he hits the hole," Koetter said. "He breaks tackles, and he does have speed."

Backup J.J. Arrington also had a 100-yard game in the second week of the season and had 92 against Arizona, helping the Bears to 327 yards rushing -- the team's highest total since 1992.

Rushing defense may be a key in the game -- the Sun Devils are eighth in the conference against the run, allowing an average of 144.9 yards a game.

But the Bears are even worse (ninth at 157.3), and Arizona State's running-back situation seems to have been settled by freshman Loren Wade, who has had back-to-back, 100-yard games. Wade rang up 113 yards in 19 carries against UCLA, which limited Echemandu to 42 the weekend before.

Given the potentially explosive offenses, the contest could turn into a shootout like last year's ASU-Cal game in Berkeley, Calif., which Cal won 55-38 by scoring the last 20 points after five lead changes.

Both teams need to win three of their last four to become bowl-eligible.

"I think we're all right as a team," Walter said. "We're strong. We've suffered some tough losses, and we are not where we wanted to be. We have to go from here and re-establish where we are."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM