It was the beginning.
The beginning of a six-game losing streak that made the Devils’ 5-1 start seem a lifetime ago come last November. A six-game losing streak that knocked ASU out of contention for a bowl game and put its head coach of five years squarely on the hot seat.
This year’s matchup is no less important for Arizona State.
This time, however, the script has been rewritten. The Sun Devils’ poor play originated during the first three weeks of the season and resurfaced just after ASU had garnered a bit of momentum.
The Devils sit at 4-4 with just four games remaining to grab two wins and a bowl bid — none of which are a given. ASU has an intriguing matchup with UCLA on the horizon, a long trip to Corvallis that will likely bring back painful memories for the coaching staff and a Territorial Cup matchup that looks tougher and tougher every time sophomore Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate gains another 200 yards.
But first come the Buffaloes.
Mike MacIntyre’s program surprised many last season during a 10-2 regular season run to the Pac-12 Conference championship during the 2016-17 campaign. But it seems that the team that only lost to USC and Michigan last year has regressed to the mean, as Colorado now sits at just 5-4, good for fifth in the Pac-12 South.
Though Colorado — specifically its defense — has struggled, the Buffaloes have plenty of offensive weapons to put on a clinic in Tempe.
The Buffs are lead by sophomore quarterback Steven Montez, who has thrown for 2,059 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions on the year. Outside of a poor performance against Washington and riding the bench against Washington State, Montez has quietly played the position well for the Buffs. He has thrown for at least two touchdowns in four games this season — including three of the last four — and has demonstrated an ability to rush the ball effectively as well, managing 50 or more yards three times this season.
Most importantly, Montez is more than capable of getting the ball to his playmakers, of which he has many.
Three Colorado receivers have at least 30 receptions for over 400 yards and two touchdowns this season. Senior wideout Bryce Bobo is the most electrifying of the bunch. At 6 foot 2 205 pounds Bobo has both the size and the speed to dominate most secondaries in the conference. He’s also a key target in crunch time for the Buffs, adding five touchdowns on the season.
The passing game is extremely balanced, but it’s hardly the most dangerous component of the Buffaloes’ offense.
Senior tailback Phillip Lindsay has long been one of the most underrated ball carries in the Pac-12. MacIntyre and co. love handing the ball off to the 5 foot 8, 190 pound playmaker, as Lindsay is on pace to shatter his 240-carry career high from last season.
Like many running backs the Sun Devils have faced this season, Lindsay is electric and should have no problem running all over Sun Devil Stadium Saturday night. He’s averaging 26 carries for 139 yards per game this season, while adding 10 touchdowns on the year. Look for him to be the difference in this game.
Colorado and ASU rank at No. 7 and No. 8 in the conference defensively -- this game will likely be a 60-minute shootout.
Unfortunately for Arizona State, it likely won’t have as much opportunity to put up points this weekend. If the Devils can’t produce a balanced rushing attack — they haven’t yet this season, save for a couple big plays in Salt Lake City -- Lindsay and the Buffs will maintain the ball for the majority of the game and force Wilkins to fire on all cylinders from the pocket.
ASU has comparable weapons in its receiving core, but putting up points won’t be the key item on the Sun Devils’ agenda Saturday night. The Devils will have to focus in on stopping Lindsay.
If they don’t, Arizona State’s margin for error down the stretch will become even slimmer.