The phrase "trap game" is overused in college football, but that's exactly what Arizona State will play in this weekend when it hosts the Colorado Buffaloes in Tempe.
Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Colorado Buffaloes have been a Pac-12 cellar dweller. This offseason, the program announced the hiring of coach Mike MacIntyre who transformed San Jose State into a WAC contender during his time with the school. Though the Buffaloes are just 2-2 and have lost both conference games, Colorado is playing inspired football and has made marked changes on the field.
"They got their guys playing with a spirit. You can tell that they're playing hard and that they're passionate about what they're doing," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said at his Monday press conference.
Graham knows the dangers of playing against a program in transition. Last season, he guided the Sun Devils to an 8-5 record and his players fed off of the excitement and energy he infused into the program. Arizona State thrived on an improved defense in Graham's first season and that's exactly what he sees in Colorado this year.
"I think they're playing a lot better defensively," Graham said. "Their defensive coordinator's doing a great job with their defense and varying what they're doing and being sound about what they're doing."
Colorado opened the season with an impressive 41-27 victory over Colorado State and followed that up with a 14-point win against Central Arkansas. From week one, Colorado has forced Pac-12 coaches to think a little harder about stopping the Buffaloes and Graham says they've made an impression on his coaching staff.
We've been looking at film for four weeks and each week, there's nobody in here that's watching film that's not going, ‘Man, these guys are good,'" Graham said.
Last year, the Buffaloes allowed 46 points per game including 51 against Arizona State when the Sun Devils came to visit in mid-October. Through four games this year, Colorado has decreased that number to 38 points per game. Though that number doesn't reflect a particularly stout defense, the Buffaloes did face an unstoppable Oregon offense this weekend.
It's also notable that in Arizona State's trip to Boulder last season, the Buffaloes were right in the thick of things at halftime. Arizona State led just 20-17 before exploding for 31 points in the second half to finish off the 51-17 victory. Graham recalled that game at Monday press conference and said he knows his players understand the importance of not letting up for a single snap.
"It was a little stressful at halftime. I remember it," Graham said. "That's the danger. The hardest thing in the world is to get guys to bring it every single week but these guys, this team I feel really good about."
Still, Graham does say that after running a four-game gauntlet against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame, playing against weaker competition can impact a player's mindset. He maintains that it's up to the coaching staff and the leaders on Arizona State's team to ensure that this team doesn't miss a beat in terms of its attitude.
"When you come in and you watch film, obviously the caliber team we've been playing and where they're at right now is a little bit different and what will happen is guys think this is not going to be as big of a challenge," Graham said.
The rise of Colorado's program this season does excite Graham because it means that his team is competing in a deeper conference. There are no cake walks this season, Graham believes every win is a quality win.
"They can definitely beat you, there's no question about it," Graham said. "There's not anybody in the Pac-12 that can't beat another team. I think it's one of the great things about our conference is the parity in our league."
Fortunately for Arizona State, it's easier to come back motivated after a loss. The Sun Devils still have their goal of winning the Pac-12 South intact and they now must approach every game with a must-win demeanor. Colorado poses challenges, and the response to those challenges starts from within.
"Our big deal is just like any other week, it's about our team and our team getting ready," Graham said. "I do like where are guys are, our guys know that we have a very good football team. I think our guys know that we can win this thing."