Everything is status quo for the No. 16 Arizona State Sun Devils. Two games down, two relatively easy wins against inferior opponents.
The good news for Arizona State is the start of Pac-12 play has arrived, and generally that means tougher competition. The bad news is the Sun Devils travel to Colorado this week, and the Buffaloes can make a great case for being the Pac-12's worst football team.
While the offense is clicking on all cylinders and the defense has held its own, there's one area Arizona State needs to improve in before UCLA comes to town, and that brings us to our Matchup of the Week:
Arizona State Pass Rush vs. Colorado Pass Protection
In Todd Graham's debut season of 2012, the Sun Devils had a relentless pass rush. Led by the surprising emergence of Carl Bradford and Will Sutton, the team had 53 sacks and terrorized opposing quarterbacks all season.
2013 saw Arizona State take a step back, despite preseason talk of Bradford and Sutton breaking every sack record in America. The team struggled because of injuries to Sutton and opponents running the ball more often, and racked up just 40 sacks.
Things have become worse through two games in 2014. Granted, New Mexico's triple-option attack didn't offer as many opportunities as a team like Cal or Oregon State would offer, but the pass rush was non-existent against Weber State, too. So far, Arizona State has just three sacks, and Salamo Fiso is the only player to get to the quarterback outright. The other two sacks were tandem efforts, and that doesn't bode well for the Sun Devils heading into conference play.
Colorado, meanwhile, has protected quarterback Sefo Liufau rather well, yielding two sacks to UMass and none to rival Colorado State in the season opener. The Sun Devils need to find a way to change these two trends this weekend, at the very least to give some of the younger players confidence heading into the Thursday night showdown.
The youth is surely a majority of the problem for Arizona State. Devilbacker Edmond Boateng is in his first year of Division I football and is still learning the intricacies of the defense. Graham thought it might be a good idea to let De'Marieya Nelson and his athleticism loose from time to time, but with his importance to and focus on the offense. Nelson is simply an athlete being plugged in to play a spot he's not entirely comfortable with at linebacker.
Worse yet, opposing offenses know exactly what Nelson's job is when he checks in on defense, and that's never a good thing. Marcus Hardison hasn't provided the same push that Davon Coleman did from the defensive end position in 2013, and Tashon Smallwood looks like he could one day be a great pass rusher, but the freshman needs to develop physically before we can anoint him the next Will Sutton.
This is the game where Graham and the team must take some chances, dialing up zone blitzes from different angles and with different players. Sure, you might give some of the game plan away to UCLA. But wouldn't you rather practice some exotic looks and creative ways to get pressure on the quarterback against a team that isn't equipped to make you pay for mistakes?
Colorado's line is big and athletic, led by sophomore left tackle Jeromy Irwin. The former three-star recruit drew comparisons to current NFL starter Kyle Long coming out of high school in Texas, and when you watch him play, you certainly see someone who can leverage his quick feet and keep pass rushers in front of him. Right tackle Stephane Nembot is a great story, a native of Cameroon who was recruited as a defensive lineman. He's older (23) for a junior, but he's also massive and strong, and Arizona State is going to have to win that matchup with speed, not brute force.
The Sun Devils won't simply be able to line up opposite Colorado's quality bookends and force pressure on Liufau. They're going to have to scheme for pressure, and that's likely to be the case all season. Look for a heavy dose of delayed and disguised blitzes from Salamo Fiso and Laiu Moeakiola. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Latu brothers get more playing time in this one, either.
This game should once again be an easy win for Arizona State, but it's also a huge test for this young defense. Regardless of how bad a Pac-12 team might be, it's still a Pac-12 team. The athletic talent is going to be much higher than it has been so far, regardless of what the football talent might be. And that creates challenges, most importantly in the trenches.
If Arizona State can manufacture pressure, it should feel a lot better about the UCLA game and the rest of the season going forward. But if the Sun Devils once again put up little pressure and only a coverage sack or two, it might be time to start evaluating just how good this defense can be in 2014.