Sparky & Company travel northwest Saturday to take on the Buffs, in what will open PAC-12 conference play for both teams. The Sun Devils, coming off a solid win in New Mexico, look to stay focused on the task at hand, instead of their next game against UCLA. After losing to bitter rival Colorado State and skating by recent FCS defector UMass, Colorado welcomes Sparky, with a point to prove that Coach Mike MacIntyre's rebuild is moving in the right direction. This early PAC-12 showcase features two teams on the opposite end of the spectrum; one who was a single game away from the Rose Bowl in 2013 and another who's looking to escape the conference cellar.
Instead of writing two separate previews and fighting tooth and nail for those precious, precious pageviews, Patrick and I used the immaculate invention that is the internet to psuedo-interview each other to create a "For Dummies" football guide on each other's alma mater. Enjoy!
Q (Patrick): It seems like a lot has been made about the ASU defense being the weak link in this year's Sun Devil team. How good has the defensive unit been thus far and how good can they potentially become? Where are they the strongest and where do some weaknesses exist?
A (Ryan): Fortunately for us ASU fans, the defense has looked stellar through the first two games, especially shutting out New Mexico in the second half of last Saturday's game. With true freshman defensive starters like Tashon Smallwood and DJ Calhoun, the sky's the limit. Three years from now, we could sit atop the PAC-12 defensively like we did last year... but that doesn't help us now with our #UnfinishedBusiness.
Our strength lies in our defensive line. The freshman Smallwood anchors us at Will Sutton's old tiger position, with returning starter Jaxon Hood at nose and physical freak Marcus Hardison at end. Our weakness lies in our youth. With eight new starters, our inexperience shows in lackluster conditioning and the taking of plays off. After jumping out to a substantial early lead against the Lobos, we let them roar back in quarter #2 and late game cramping; both issues which can be fixed with additional years of mental and physical conditioning. Depending on what Devil defense hits the field, it could be a complete game shut out or a shoot out, which bodes well for CU as they could catch us looking forward to Brett Hundley & Company.
Q (Ryan): Speaking of defense, the Buffs have given up 69 points in their first two games of the season, along with 772 yards. Who on the CU defensive front needs to step up to slow down the Devils?
A (Patrick): The front seven has certainly been the most obvious weakness of this 2014 Colorado squad. Expectations weren't high to begin with due to a key injury to Tyler Henington and the unit's overall inexperience but the first two games have been eye-opening, to say the least. Senior Juda Parker and junior Josh Tupou fill in the middle of the line and are the only upperclassmen on the depth chart. They haven't exactly stood out up to this point but they'll need to make their presence felt on Saturday if they're going to hinder ASU's rushing attack up the middle.
On the edge, freshman Derek McCartney has shown some real flashes of skill, he's an athlete who's made a few big plays early on and has the most potential to be a game-changer going forward. Behind them is Addison Gillam, the conference's leading tackler a year ago. He's been bothered by a bum shoulder and elbow for the past few weeks but he's still as effective a pursuer as CU has. He and a capable secondary will have to make up for a lot of the d-line's shortcomings. We'll see how long this defense can hold out and prevent the big play, they've certainly got a lot to prove.
Q (Patrick): The Sun Devil ground game that this defense will be facing just racked up 423 yards on the ground against New Mexico. 423! What makes D.J. Foster and the ASU offense as a whole so dangerous?
A (Ryan): The Tempe's Big Three is what truly makes this offense so dangerous and dynamic. Someone should call Maury because Jaelen Strong really could be Brandon Marshall's long lost brother. One of the biggest receivers in the NCAA, Jaelen isn't afraid to show his physical side, ready to bang with any DB's that dare challenge him. Mix that with the ability to jump out of the gym, stickum hands, and solid speed to boot: he'll be a first round pick come spring time.
With defenses stretching vertically to try and keep Jaelen from torching his latest victim, DJ Foster runs the ball hard to keep them honest... and to make them pay when they aren't. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride until now, DJ has blown up in the spotlight, setting career highs for rushing yards in his last three games, dating back to 2013. He's a carbon copy of last year's feature back Marion Grice, except with the ability to shift into that fifth gear and leave defenses in the dust. He may not have the prototypical workhorse tailback size, but he's a Swiss Army Knife. Whether it's running routes out of the back field, sweeps, or even between the tackles, he does it all.
Last, we have Jake Plummer Junior aka Taylor Kelly.
My mortal enemy the fifth year senior has the ability to make pinpoint passes and plays with his legs when necessary. A system QB, we may not see much of him at the next level, but he sure has become a PAC- 12 defensive coordinator's nightmare.
Q (Ryan): Despite only beating UMass by 3 points, CU managed to hang 474 yards before the dust cleared in Foxboro. The Buff offense can obviously move the ball, so who should I expect to step up if this game becomes the Shootout at the O.K. Corral? Also, I must commend all of Boulder on that dub. Being from Massachusetts and been rejected by the UMass a couple years back, the social media heartbreak was almost too enjoyable...
A (Patrick): Ahh, some good old fashioned sports social media schadenfreude, is there anything more satisfying? I'm just glad the Buffs came out on the right end of that one. When they were down 11 I was ready to begin engaging disaster protocol. This CU offense is certainly capable of scoring. (Typing that still feels bizarre.) Sefo Liufau has proven he has the arm and the toughness to move the ball under pressure. He's not the quickest QB but he's shown great awareness and can throw on the run when forced out of the pocket.
His primary target is junior Nelson Spruce, who already has 17 grabs for 249 yards and 4 touchdowns. Spruce catches anything and everything thrown his way and has deceiving speed, thus far he's had no problem slipping behind secondaries for the deep ball. Freshmen Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo are looking like emerging stars in Boulder. Fields is incredibly quick and has been really effective tacking on yards after the catch. Bobo has all the physical measurements you'd want in a big wideout and as he gets more reps he'll start making defenses respect his side of the field.
The air attack has to be considered the strength of the offense this year, as the ground game has been hit or miss. Through two games no CU tailback has reached the cumulative 100-yard mark. Against UMass, big Christian Powell had one of his better games since the 2012 season, highlighted by a rumbling 14-yard touchdown late in the 3rd quarter to begin the Buffs' comeback. While Michael Adkins II is probably CU's most versatile option, he's had trouble getting past the first line of defense and running downhill. Tony Jones kind of fits the scat back mold and when he's in space he can be dangerous but he's more effective peeling out for passes instead of trying to get through larger defensive lines. If the offensive front can provide some pass protection for Sefo, I could see CU hitting some big plays through the air and matching ASU scoring drives, at least for a half.
Q (Patrick): So, how do you see this one shaking out? Does ASU hang around for a half and then put on the afterburners?
A (Ryan): I see this one going two ways. The first route is the Devils hit the field mentally ready and run away with the game in the first three quarters, allowing them to coast through the fourth. Unfortunately, I don't think that's the way the cookie crumbles.
Option two, the Devils get caught looking forward and a CU team, looking to prove a point after their first two games, stick with them all the way down the stretch. Two weeks from today, Sparky will host the #6 Bruins and with such a monumental game upcoming, there is no way that there isn't a group of players peeking forward. A motivated Buff team could come out and punch ASU in the mouth, something that took the Devils two quarters to recover from last week when we visited the ABQ. Add in a more talented team who won't be so eager to let the Devils get up as easy, I could see this coming down to the last couple minutes, with Todd Graham scrambling to save their season. Hey, they call them trap games for a reason.
Q (Ryan): What do you think? Will this be a heavyweight, punch for punch grudge match or a back alley mugging?
A (Patrick): I could see this one being a bit like a middleweight prize fight. It'll begin tight and even, the two boxers guarding their faces and trading jabs for a few rounds. ASU will score on the ground, CU will answer through the air and we'll be fairly square going into the 2nd quarter. At this point the Buffs will begin to show some fatigue but will still land a couple of solid hooks on the Devils, while taking a few uppercuts to their own jaw. A tie at half would be a success for CU, but it's more likely they'll be trailing by a score or two. Then, as the 3rd quarter wears on the Buffaloes' defense will wear down and drop its guard leaving them exposed to haymakers from Taylor Kelly and DJ Foster. The latter half of the 4th quarter becomes garbage time and Arizona State walks out of Boulder bruised but far from beaten.
It's either that, or Colorado gets its doors blown off from the jump and the offense has time to get some reps in against ASU's second-stringers.