The Sun Devils travel to Boulder, Colorado, to open up conference play with the Colorado Buffaloes in Week 3. In college football, anything can happen in conference play. Headed into a bye week and then UCLA at home after the matchup with Colorado, the maroon and gold can't look past a team that has struggled this season so far.
Todd Graham has said time and again that if the Sun Devils are going to win championships, they have to protect home field and then go on the road and win tough games. It sounds obvious and simple, but its still one of the most difficult tasks in college football to win conference games in enemy territory.
Season so far
To say Colorado has had a rough first two weeks of the season would be a gross understatement. It's been an absolute mess for the Buffuloes to say the least, who are already looking like one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 unless they can turn it around quickly against a team like Arizona State.
In Week 1, Colorado led the Colorado State Rams for most of the contest. With 13:10 left to go in the fourth quarter, Garrett Grayson completed a 16-yard pass to Rashard Higgins to put the Rams up 21-17. They added on 10 more points in the fourth quarter and took down the Buffaloes 31-17. The Rams had 266 total yards on the ground, including two 100-yard rushers for the first time since 1996.
Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau and junior wide receiver Nelson Spruce weren't enough to carry the Buffaloes to victory on their own. Liufau had 241 yards and two touchdowns through the air and added seven rushes for 47 yards on the ground. Spruce caught both touchdowns and had seven receptions for 104 yards.
In Week 2, Colorado came away with the win at UMASS, but it wasn't much prettier than week one. The Minutemen were up 31-20 before Liufau found his groove and the Buffaloes scored on their next three possessions, including a 70-yard touchdown pass from Liufau to Spruce that gave Colorado the lead back 34-31. Liufau and Spruce connected again early in the fourth quarter to put Colorado up 10 points and the Buffaloes held UMASS to a field goal to seal the win.
Last season, Colorado finished last in Pac-12 total offense with just 369.9 yards per game. They return seven starters on offense, but lose a key piece in wide receiver Paul Richardson who had a monster 2013 with 83 receptions for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns. However through the first two games, Spruce seems to have slid right into Richardson's spot.
Liufau found some success after playing the Sun Devils last season but his only other win last season came over Cal. He completed 23 of 36 passes for 364 yards and had three touchdowns in that game, but then turned around and the Buffs lost 59-7 to Washington where Liufau was just 12 of 22 with two interceptions and a touchdown, so who knows which quarterback will show up Saturday. Perhaps he can be a good quarterback for this young Arizona State defense to gain some confidence against before heading into the meat of the schedule.
The running game this season has been by committee so far for Colorado. In week one against CSU, the Buffs had 134 yards on the ground. Leading the way was sophomore Michael Adkins II who had 16 carries for 68 yards. In week two it was junior Christian Powell with 80 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown to his credit after getting just five touches for eight yards in week one. Senior Tony Jones also had seven rushes for 47 yards last week. Powell is more ground-and-pound while Adkins has more agility and cuts up field better so they can both play different roles. The Sun Devils will need to prepare for all three running backs.
The wide receiving corps has depth despite losing Richardson. Seniors Tyler McCulloch and D.D. Goodson bring experience and are the primary threats behind Spruce. 4-star freshman wide receiver Shay Fields also had an impressive outing against UMASS, hauling in six balls for 93 yards.
Meanwhile the road graders up front also return their fair share of talent. Two-year starters in center Gus Handler and tackle Jack Harris are gone, but senior left guard Kaiwi Crab and senior right guard Daniel Munyer return and junior right tackle Stephane Nembot comes back as well. Crabb and Munyer are both 300 pounds and 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 respectively so they certainly add size. Not to mention Nembot who is 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. That's a lot of body mass to have to deal with up front.
The front seven was really poor rushing the quarterback last season, which is great news for Taylor Kelly who seemingly panicked some under pressure against New Mexico. Colorado loses defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe who led the team with just four sacks last season. Defensive end Juda Parker also returns for his senior season after posting 21.5 tackles and one sack last year.
The best in the linebacking corps is far and away MIKE linebacker Addison Gilliam. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Gilliam has a commanding physical presence and had 89 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and one interception last season. He led the team in tackles and has a very high activity level on the field. Where Gilliam is on the field should be the Sun Devil offense's number one concern Saturday.
The secondary is however the strongest positional group on defense for Colorado because of the depth and experience they have there. At strong safety is senior Terrel Smith who had 59 tackles in 2012. Senior corner Greg Henderson, who stands 5-foot-11, will probably get the first crack at covering Jaelen Strong. He had 52 tackles with four interceptions and 10 pass break ups a year ago.
It should be a strong test of the Sun Devils' passing game. Keep in mind the opponents, but no one receiver has tallied more than five receptions for 83 yards against this group so far this season. Watch to see if these corners have success early against Kelly, because if the tempo gets disrupted the Sun Devils struggle to find the end zone. The run game might prove to be crucial and the maroon and gold could have to lean on D.J. Foster again Saturday.
The thin air in Boulder means balls should travel a lot farther in the kicking game. Colorado kicker Will Oliver returns and was a perfect 30 for 30 on extra points. He made 11 of 12 field goals from under 40 yards and 6 of 12 from 40 plus. Oliver also handled kickoff duties putting 26 of his 57 kicks through the end zone for a touchback.
The punting left a lot to be desired from Darragh O'Neil who averaged 40.5 yards per punt in 66 punts last season, downing a third of those inside the 20-yard line. O'Neil had a solid showing against UMASS though averaging 48.8 yards per punt, booting it five times.