The seventh all-time meeting between these two schools looks much different now than it did just one week ago. In the early season, Arizona State was sputtering on offense, struggling to reach their 2014 gear, culminating in a sound walloping delivered by the USC Trojans in Tempe. At an unimpressive 2-2 it appeared that the Sun Devils' season was on the verge of sliding off the rails, and that they might be gettable in their own stadium.
The Buffs, after dropping an ugly game in Hawai'i, found success on the ground in wins over UMass and Nicholls and discovered a new level of mental fortitude in their 27-24 overtime victory over Colorado State. They've looked improved over last year, but in light of last week's results, that improvement might stall in the desert.
Colorado played Oregon close, as tough as they have since joining the Pac-12, but were worn down late in the game, eventually succumbing to their all-too-familiar flaws. Worse, the Buffs lost two critical pieces to injury. They'll be without senior linebacker and leading tackler Kenneth Olugbode due to a leg injury and most likely without the services of sophomore left tackle Sam Kronshage, who suffered a concussion, in Tempe this weekend.
As for the Sun Devils, they notched a life-affirming win in Pasadena, overpowering UCLA on the ground and consistently winning their battles up front defensively, severely limiting Bruin playmaker Paul Perkins, who averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. It's clear that their early season struggles are now behind them.
Arizona State does many things well, but they happen to excel in the facets of the game where the Buffs are currently most vulnerable. In order to pull off the road upset, Colorado's going to need to find a way to limit ASU's pass rush, while also holding their dynamic ball carriers to a modest output. No small feat. Here's how the Buffaloes matchup with the Sun Devils' firepower.
When Arizona State has the ball
For all of the early season consternation, Arizona State's offense still possesses that familiar potential for explosiveness. Senior D.J. Foster remains the primary target and most concerning threat, though his role has shifted from working out of the backfield to lining up out wide. Foster currently leads his team in receiving, averaging a healthy 9.5 yards per catch with two scores to his credit through five games. Oddly enough however, he may be less dangerous to Colorado's defense when working as a receiver.
The Ducks dealt the most damage to the Buffs on the ground, out of the backfield. Perhaps Todd Graham and his staff will have Foster line up as a tailback at times but if he's mostly positioned out wide CU's secondary is capable of matching up with him in coverage. That leaves running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage (The One That Got Away) to be reckoned with. Richard has emerged as a high-caliber option in his sophomore season, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 101.6 yards per game with four touchdowns to his name. He's got everything you'd want in a Pac-12 running back, the ability to break it long and the toughness to get through tackles and fight for extra yardage. Ballage acts as somewhat of a change-of-pace back. Bigger and tougher to bring to the ground (especially with 10 other guys pushing him), he wears defensive fronts down quickly.
In order to give their offense time and room to attempt to run the ball, the Colorado Fightin' Leavitts will need to do two things. They must somehow turn quarterback Mike Bercovici over, by disguising pressure and coverages, and find a way to slow down the Sun Devil ground game. The Buffs have nabbed interceptions in all five games this season, they'll likely need to make it six in order to win this one. (History is not working in their favor here, the last time CU picked off a pass in six straight games was at the end of the 2004 season.) With both starting linebackers out, Colorado will again be hard-pressed to deal with the athleticism of both Arizona State's ball carriers and their offensive line. I expect defensive backs Tedric Thompson and Chidobe Awuzie to again lead the team in tackles, playing up in run support early and often.
When Colorado has the ball
Much was made of Oregon's softened secondary going into last weekend's contest, and how Sefo Liufau and the Colorado receivers could take advantage. Aside from one big drive through the air and the work done on Glen Ihenacho by Nelson Spruce, the Buffs were unable to fully capitalize on that weakness. This was largely due to the fact that CU was continually stymied on first down by the Oregon defensive line, and having been knocked off schedule they were then consistently pressured into broken plays and mistakes on the ensuing downs.
Last Saturday night's results do not bode well for this Saturday night's results, especially with the first two options at left tackle out due to injury. Senior large man Stephane Nembot will likely again move over to the left side and redshirt freshman John Lisella II will step in at right tackle as he did against Oregon. Lisella has shown promise but he's still adapting to dealing with the speed of Pac-12 defensive ends.
It's critical to the Buffs' chances that they gain positive yardage on first down more often than not, preferably at least four yards. If Phillip Lindsay and Christian Powell are unable to advance the ball on the ground, ASU is going to unleash one of the country's best pass rushes on Liufau and his line, making long second and third downs significantly more difficult to convert.
The Sun Devils are currently averaging 8.8 tackles for a loss per game this season, which ranks them second in the conference and ninth nationally. Additionally, their defensive line and linebackers have combined to rank 19th nationally in Front 7 Havoc rating. They disguise their pressure exceptionally well and have the athletes to break down nearly every form of offensive protection. Brian Lindgren and his staff are going to have to devise some sort of method to generate a push and provide Liufau enough protection in order to get players the ball in space.
If Colorado is unable to run the ball, and thus unable to protect Sefo leading to turnovers and shorter ASU fields, the Buffs will be in serious trouble early. If the CU defense can force a turnover or two, somehow slow down Richard and Ballage, and flip the field once or twice, the Buffs can stay in this game into the 4th quarter and give themselves a chance to make those extremely elusive winning plays. Ultimately, this matchup will come down to how well Colorado is able to run the ball and how well they're able to handle ASU's pressure.
Based solely off of last week's performances, the prospect of those factors working out in the Buffs' favor does not appear to be promising. But, as we all know, things can and do change quickly and abruptly in this wild conference. Saturday night presents yet another opportunity for the Buffaloes to break out and earn that signature win. The same question remains, do they have enough in the tank to seize it?