ASU vs. Colorado: Matchup of the week

Christian Petersen

With mismatches all over the field, this week comes down to coaching.

Anyone ready for more Arizona State-Notre Dame talk? Didn't think so. I'm sure everyone has done enough sulking, so let's focus on what should be some happier times for the Sun Devils.

Colorado comes to town on Saturday night, and the Buffaloes are, um, pretty bad, as usual. Todd Graham has tried to convince everyone that the CU defense is improved, that the Buffs can score points and that ASU better not overlook their Pac-12 South "foe."

Yeah, right.

Matchup of the Week: ASU coaches vs. CU coaches

The only way this game is close is if somehow new Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre convinces the Buffalos that they can hang with Arizona State. Then, once MacIntyre convinces CU that they can win, Todd Graham has to fail so miserably as a leader that the Sun Devils fall flat on their faces, at home nonetheless, and collapse.

Mike Norvell vs. Mike MacIntyre

MacIntyre, like Graham, is a defensive specialist and is heavily involved in the Buffaloes game plan. The key in this one is Colorado's pass rush. If Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell can't find a way to slide protection to keep Taylor Kelly on his feet, the Buffaloes have a chance to hang around in this game.

You never want to let a far inferior opponent hang around.

While Colorado hasn't exactly stopped anyone impressive, they have forced opposing quarterbacks to throw six interceptions already, and for some reason, Kelly has turned into an interception machine this year, already having thrown six after tossing just nine last season. If the Buffs can get pressure on Kelly, it could lead to an unwanted turnover, and turnovers are precisely how good football teams lose to bad ones.

The Buffaloes have a weapon to get to Kelly, too. Defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe is as good as they come in the Pac-12 when talking about edge rushers. Like Will Sutton, Uzo-Diribe is constantly doubled and his production is lacking this year because of it. Norvell has been hesitant to slide the protection or keep an extra blocker in, and even when he has, like in the second half of the Notre Dame game when Chris Coyle was asked to block more, all it did was take away a very good pass-catcher.

This needs to be a statement game for the offensive line. If you can't win one-on-one battles in this game, the season is over. You won't win going head-to-head with UCLA or Washington's defensive lines, or even Oregon State's for that matter, if you can't take care of Colorado's.

Finally, this has to be the game where Norvell gets D.J. Foster involved in the running game again. Heck, this has to be the game where the running game exists again. Marion Grice has fallen from Heisman hopeful to irrelevance in the national award races, regardless of his touchdown totals. Where have the big plays been? It starts with the line, but at some point the coaches have to get creative.

The unrelenting onslaught of screen passes, play-action intermediate routes and simplistic runs just aren't working. Where are the stretch runs? Where's the option? Where are the traps and whams? Isolations, dives and power aren't working anymore. Get Grice in some space. Throw the ball deep. Look like a well-rounded offense, so when the game is on the line, the defense can't sit on Kelly's three most comfortable plays.

This is the game to try new things if you're going to try them.

Todd Graham vs. Brian Lindgren

Graham, who calls the defense for the Sun Devils, was emotional on Thursday when talking about the team's defensive and special teams efforts of late. They have missed too many tackles and just haven't been aggressive enough. The blitzes are lacking, the angles are bad and the team looks like they don't do any homework during the week.

As Graham pointed out, there's nothing wrong with the tackling fundamentals; instead, rather, it's a matter of guys arriving too early or too late, and simply not being in position to make plays.

That needs to change this week.

Colorado's game plan is pretty simple: get the ball to two very good receivers.

Paul Richardson is going to play in the NFL. He has great speed and understands the offense. He's a veteran who can separate and make his quarterback's life easier. The Sun Devils have to know that Richardson, who has 31 receptions for 621 yards, is going to try and go vertical, especially after Notre Dame exploited Robert Nelson on the fade route over and over and over again while Graham failed to adjust.

Opposite of Richardson is Nelson Spruce, a former two-way star on a state championship team in Southern California. Spruce was once regarded as a much better recruit than the ones who end up at Colorado, but an on-campus drug incident derailed his late rise through the recruiting rankings, and he was forced to stick with his original choice.

The Buffs have to be happy that Spruce ended up in Boulder. He has turned into a great possession man opposite Richardson. Spruce has good size and knows how to position himself to make the catch. What he isn't good at is creating separation or taking the top off of a defense. He's more quick than fast, and even his quick isn't that great.

This should allow Graham to roll coverage and create turnovers. If Richardson lines up opposite Irabor, it should free Alden Darby up to go make plays. If Spruce is opposite Irabor, I'd expect a lot of route jumping, with Darby playing over the top to keep Spruce from getting away if a catch is made.

When Richardson lines up with Nelson, Damarious Randall, who played great in his starting debut against Notre Dame, will get a chance to jump the deep route, much like he did against the Fighting Irish in the second quarter, when he baited Tommy Rees into throwing deep and then should have had an interception.

When Spruce lines up against Nelson, expect Randall to come down and help the smaller Nelson out.

As for the pass rush, Colorado doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents with their offensive line. This is the worst line the Devils have faced since Sacramento State, and it's not close. We've been saying for weeks not to worry about the pass rush.

If they don't get going this week, worry. If they can't get to the quarterback, it's because the coaches aren't calling the right plays. Receivers are either open too quickly, or the line calls are too predictable.

Finally, missed tackles or not, Colorado can't run the ball on Arizona State. The Buffs leading rusher, Christian Powell, is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, and his longest rush this year is 12 yards.

If the Sun Devils can't stop him, it's because they weren't mentally prepared for this game. It's because Colorado won the coaching battle.

Colorado won't win the coaching battle. Bet on it.

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