With injuries as the common denominator at multiple key positions for Colorado, the Buffaloes' physical woes may very well impact the starting quarterback as recent reports imply that redshirt freshman Nick Hirschman figures to replace senior Tyler Hansen under center.
Hirschman, the No. 42 quarterback prospect in the Class of 2010, has appeared in three games in his debut season, completing 13-of-27 passes for 125 yards. Hansen, who suffered a concussion last week against Oregon, has starting experience dating back to his sophomore season and has totaled 1,744 passing yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions this season.
Whether Hirschman or Hansen is the triggerman for Colorado, the arsenal will be depleted as both starting running back Rodney Stewart and top receiver Paul Richardson are expected to miss the game due to injury. In all, Stewart and Richardson account for 66.3% of the Buffaloes' rushing totals and 48.6% of Colorado's receiving production.
With Stewart out of the lineup, redshirt freshman Tony Jones, owner of 187 rushing yards on 50 carries with two touchdowns, slips into the starting lineup while true freshman Malcolm Creer, scheduled to redshirt prior to Stewart's injury, carried 11 times for 37 yards in his college debut last week against Oregon.
In total, Colorado faces the realistic possibility that its backfield will consist of redshirt freshmen starting at quarterback and running back with a true freshman as the top reserve at running back.
Thankfully for Colorado, wide receiver Toney Clemons brings senior leadership to the skill positions, and with Richardson and Stewart unavailable, Clemons stands as the Buffaloes' top pass-catcher with 204 yards and three scores on 18 total receptions this year.
Speedy redshirt freshman Keenan Canty has collected 11 receptions for 175 yards thus far, while Logan Gray, a former Georgia Bulldog that played against ASU in Georgia's trip to Tempe in 2008, also has 11 catches to his credit for a total of 175 yards.
Senior receiver Kyle Cefalo, third on the team with two touchdown catches, also figures to miss the game due to injury.
Senior tight end Ryan Deehan. a former ASU recruiting target, likely will be frequently targeted as he has proven to be reliable with 13 catches for 196 yards and one touchdown. Senior Matthew Bahr and sophomore DaVaughn Thornton are listed as the two top reserves behind Deehan and the pair has combined for four receptions for 20 yards.
At fullback, senior Evan Harrington and senior Tyler Ahles are listed as the top two options and have been used sparingly in the offense, as Harrington has caught two passes and rushed once, while Ahles has one reception.
Colorado's offensive line consists of sophomore left tackle David Bakhtiari, senior left guard Ethan Adkins, sophomore center Gus Handler, senior right guard Ryan Miller and junior right tackle Ryan Dannewitz.
True freshmen Alexander Lewes and Paulay Asiata are listed as the top reserves at left tackle and left guard, respectively, with redshirt freshman Kaiwi Crabb as the number two center and senior Sione Tau as the top contingent at both right guard and right tackle.
In all, Colorado's offensive line, though experienced, has been largely insufficient as the Buffaloes rank last in the Pac-12 in rushing offense (91.7 ypg.) and have allowed the most sacks (31) of any team in the league.
Colorado Offense in a Nutshell
If Hirschman ends up making his first collegiate start, it will truly be baptism by fire, as the deck will be severely stacked against him. Colorado's top running back is out, its top receiver is also sidelined and the Buffaloes' offensive line has been atrocious this season.
Ryan Deehan is a decent outlet at tight end and Keenan Canty is a burner if given room, but the odds are strongly against Colorado being able to make any kind of progress offensively against the Sun Devils. Especially with Junior Onyeali healthy to compete against his home state team, ASU will be looking to press Colorado's quarterback and running back into mistakes.
For Colorado to have any chance in terms of offensive productivity, it will have to bank on ASU turnovers and other miscues to enable the Buffaloes to work with short fields.
Colorado's struggles are far from limited to the offensive side of the ball, as the team's defense ranks last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (38.0 ppg.) and 10th in total defense (435.1 ypg.).
Oddly, the Buffaloes' pass defense is a bit of an anomaly as the team ranks fourth in the league in pass defense (231.2 ypg.) but is 11th in the conference in pass efficiency defense (152.4).
Colorado works out of a 3-4 base defense, with junior Will Pericak (39 tackles, 2.0 TFL) at left defensive end and senior David Goldberg (10 tackles, 1.0 sack) at right defensive end. Redshirt freshman Kirk Poston and junior Nick Kasa (seven tackles) are the top left end reserves, while Chidera Uzo-Diribe (14 tackles, 4.5 sacks), among the league leaders in sacks, tackles-for-loss and forced fumbles, has started most of the season but is listed as a backup this week.
Perhaps above all other categories, Colorado has shown the ability to pressure quarterbacks, ranking third in the Pac-12 with 20 sacks. The potential is certainly there for the Buffaloes to complicate matters for Brock Osweiler and ASU's offense and the Sun Devil line has had several porous moments this year.
Colorado's four-man linebacker alignment consists of senior Josh Hartigan (19 tackles, 4.0 sacks) as the JACK linebacker, junior Jon Major (43 tackles, 2.0 TFL) at MIKE linebacker, sophomore Derrick Webb (39 tackles, 4.0 TFL) at the WILL spot and senior Patrick Mahnke (24 tackles, 3.0 TFL) at SAM linebacker.
The linebacker depth consists entirely of freshmen, with true freshmen Juda Parker (three tackles, 1.0 TFL), Brady Daigh (16 tackles) and Woodson Greer (three tackles, 1.0 TFL)—a player many believed was going to sign with ASU—while redshirt freshman Lowell Williams finalizes the quartet of reserves.
Colorado's most significant injured defensive player, linebacker Douglas Rippy, was leading the team in tackles (62) before a season-ending injury suffered in recent weeks.
In the secondary, sophomore Terrel Smith (19 tackles, one interception) and true freshman Greg Henderson (33 tackles, 3.0 TFL) are the projected starters at cornerback, with senior Jason Espinoza (12 tackles) and true freshman D.D. Goodson (four tackles) behind them.
Phoenix native Ray Polk (50 tackles, one interception) is expected to return to the starting free safety spot after missing action due to injury, with true freshman K.T. Tu'umalo (six tackles) behind him.
Senior Anthony Perkins, Colorado's leading tackler (63), assumes the strong safety role with Terrel Smith, a potential starting cornerback, listed behind him as well as true freshman Kyle Washington (10 tackles), also an Arizona product.
Colorado Defense in a Nutshell
Colorado has shown some potency in pressuring quarterbacks, but in all the Buffaloes may be a one trick pony defensively as they are in the bottom two in the Pac-12 in several major categories: scoring defense (12th), rushing defense (12th), opponent first downs (12th), pass efficiency defense (11th), red zone defense (11th) and interceptions (11th).
With ASU running back Cameron Marshall boasting a clean bill of health after the bye week, it appears to be highly probable that ASU will be able to use its multitude of offensive talents—both on the ground and through the air—to slice through the Colorado defense.
The only plausible scenario for Colorado's defense to make an impact would be if the Buffaloes can frequently find their way into the Sun Devil backfield, but that would have to happen virtually every play for a significant difference to be made.
Special Teams Preview
Colorado uses—surprise, surprise—a pair of true freshmen in the kicking game, with Darragh O'Neill at punter and Will Oliver at kicker. Despite their collective inexperience the two have played well fairly well, as Oliver has connected on 9-of-12 field goals while O'Neill has punted an astronomic 50 times, carrying a 43.5-yard average. Oddly, Oliver is 5-of-6 from beyond 40 yards, but only 2-of-4 inside 30.
Kick and punt returns have been a complete non-factor for Colorado this year, as the Buffaloes average only 17.7 yards on kickoff returns—116th of 120 FBS teams—and 5.9 yards on punt returns.
In virtually every team statistic, Colorado is among the Pac-12's worst—though youth is as much to blame as any sort of athletic ineptitude. Also, the Buffaloes are the league's most penalized team—ranking 117th of 120 teams in total penalties—also a sign of an inexperienced squad.
This year, Colorado has a very limited talent ceiling at full strength, and to be without the key players that the Buffaloes potentially will be this Saturday, the outlook is very grim for the visiting team.
Keys to an ASU Victory
Don't See Past CU
Being a 30-plus point favorite and having an important Pac-12 South road trip to UCLA on the horizon, it is very plausible that the Sun Devils can overlook Colorado. There is no reason for ASU to not come out with the pedal to the metal to make short work of the Trick-or-Treaters from Boulder.
Execute and Stay Healthy
In many ways, this game has the feel of a season-opener in which ASU is a heavy favorite; the competition level is not expected to be fierce, so a goal should be to potentially rest some starters—especially those recently healed starters such as Cameron Marshall and Junior Onyeali—so that ASU can be primed to make its expected late-season run to clinch the Pac-12 South.
The only equation that seems mildly concerning for ASU is Colorado's decent pass rush skills combined with the Sun Devils' iffy offensive line. The worst-case scenario here would be for Brock Osweiler to be frequently pressured and/or hit by Colorado, as ASU can obviously ill-afford to see No. 17 banged up.
Injury News and Lineup Notes
• Trevor Kohl is highly questionable due to a shoulder injury and head coach Dennis Erickson said he didn't believe the tight end would play on Saturday.
• Though he hasn't missed substantial game time, running back Cameron Marshall is reportedly clear of a nagging ankle injury.
• Defensive end Junior Onyeali will be back in the lineup after being injured week three against Illinois. Erickson said that the sophomore wasn't in football shape yet, so while he may start don't expect Onyeali to get his usual workload of snaps.