TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State coach Todd Graham earlier this season called the first five games of his tenure "critical" to not only this season but the entire program.
"I felt like the first five games were the most critical games," Graham said Wednesday. "Having that success early, it helps with recruiting, it helps with buy in, it's just so critical. That's why we've worked our tails off."
Saturday's game against Cal in Berkley marks game No. 5, and Graham believes a win could provide a key momentum swing for this season and beyond.
ASU has not won at Memorial Stadium since 1997 and has lost eight of its last nine meetings with Cal. Graham said he doesn't give much credence to such streaks, but he has had this game circled for quite some time.
"I looked at the schedule at the beginning of the year, just being honest with you, and I looked at Utah and Cal and said 'That'll determine our season,'" Graham said. "So that's how important this game is."
A win against Cal would also make ASU 4-1 leading into their bye week before they play on the road again against Colorado.
LEWIS GETTING COMFORTABLE
It has been a little over two weeks since Deantre Lewis moved from running back to defensive back, and the redshirt sophomore says he's getting more comfortable with each practice.
"I feel like my feet are getting better, more relaxed," Lewis said. "And I feel like being able to cover receivers, I'm getting better there, too."
Lewis' involvement on defense has been limited to nickel and dime packages on third downs, with Lewis mostly blitzing. Graham said Lewis played almost every third down in those sets against Utah last week.
At practice Tuesday, Lewis lined up at the bandit safety position, where Graham initially said he sees Lewis contributing most once he adjusts to playing defense.
"We're bringing him along," Graham said. "As fast as he can learn it, the more and more he'll play. He's done a good job, had a good attitude for us."
Lewis said his man-to-man coverage still needs a good deal of work but is coming along. As he improves, he looks forward to getting more involved as a bandit safety.
"It gives me more work to do," Lewis said. "It doesn't allow me to be lazy."
HOOD MAKING STRIDES
If freshman nose tackle Jaxon Hood knew a month ago what he knows now, he might have approached the first start of his ASU career a little differently.
"I wish I could go back to (the NAU game) and play that game over again," Hood said. "That would be a cupcake game compared to some of the games we've played. That first game, I had some jitters even though it was a weaker opponent."
Hood has learned quickly how to manage the emotions that come with each game, particularly as the intensity mounts week to week.
"I've definitely learned that being even-keeled matters a lot at this level," Hood said. "You can't get all psyched up and bang your head into a locker or listen to death metal. That stuff doesn't work. You'll lose your mind, you'll play bad, you'll be out of position.
"I think each game I've matured more and more."
Hood says he's also picking up better film study habits each week and learning something technical from each game he plays. Through four games, Hood has tallied seven tackles, including two for a loss, and one sack.
ASU co-defensive coordinator Paul Randolph, who works daily with the defensive line, has been impressed by Hood's success, particularly considering Hood moved from outside defensive lineman to nose tackle when he got to ASU.
"His growth has been really accelerated," Randolph said. "He's getting better with each and every rep. He's progressing quite well truthfully, and I see him continuing on that trajectory."
CAL O-LINE BANGED UP
Graham earlier this week called Cal's offensive line the best ASU will have encountered this season. But the Bears have allowed 13 sacks over the past two games, including seven last week.
There's clearly a disconnect between Graham's statement and Cal's offensive line performance, and that appears to be injuries. For all but one game this season, Cal has been without two seniors who played every game last year. Right guard Dominic Galas has missed all four of Cal's games with a torn pectoral muscle, and right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin has missed the last three with a knee injury. Galas is not expected back until sometime in October, and Summers-Gavin's status for this week remains uncertain.
Depleted or not, Cal's line will have its hands full with ASU's defense, which is averaging 9.75 tackles for loss per game and has the second most sacks (14) in the Pac-12.
NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
-- After leaving in the first half of ASU's win over Utah, starting center Kody Koebensky has practiced with the first team offense two days in a row. Koebensky's injury has not been disclosed, but it doesn't appear to be hampering him.
-- Perhaps having to yell over the max-volume crowd noise blaring at practice Wednesday to simulate a road atmosphere contributed to Graham's hoarse voice after practice, but he had another explanation: "It's probably been 2005 since I've coached this much," Graham said. "I'm having fun, but I have lost my voice a little bit."