On paper the 1-4 Colorado Buffaloes are certainly tempting for the Sun Devils to overlook, especially with a home showdown with Oregon looming large next week. Additionally, it's no secret that ASU hasn't played all that well on the road thus far in 2012. So is there more than meets the eye for this Thursday night showdown in Boulder? DevilsDigest's Joe Healey examines ASU's next opponent. Offensive Preview
After winning the offseason quarterback battle with Texas transfer Connor Wood and Nick Hirschman, former Kansas transfer Jordan Webb was christened as Colorado's starter.
On the season, Webb has 961 passing yards with a completion rating of 58.6% with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Though not much of a rusher, Webb has also added a pair of touchdowns on the ground. Webb has been analyzed as a player theoretically able to use the strengths around him, but with Colorado's limited experience and playmaking skills in the pass game Webb's productivity has been hot and cold.
Webb certainly has his work cut out for him against ASU, as the Sun Devils are among the nation's very best in pressuring quarterbacks while also boasting an excellent pass defense, making his windows of opportunity likely to be very few and far between.
Hirschman and Wood have both seen limited time in Colorado's blowout losses this year.
At tailback, Colorado employs a "thunder and lightning" duo of diminutive Tony Jones and workhorse Christian Powell. At 5-foot-7, 190-pounds, Jones has the quickness to beat opponents to the edge while the 6-foot-0, 235-pound Powell, a true freshman, can bulldoze through and past defenders. Powell has been limited lately due to injury but is expected to be available against ASU.
Though the season as a whole has been a disappointment thus far for the Buffaloes, Powell has been a true surprise impact player as he has become a prominent runner despite having little experience as a ball carrier in high school. On the season Powell has 294 rushing yards on 69 carries with three touchdowns, while Jones has shown his playmaking skills with an average of 6.0 yards per carry, totaling 181 rushing yards on 30 carries. Jones also ranks third on the team with 12 receptions.
Josh Ford (76 rushing yards, one touchdown), Donta Abron (41 yards) and Malcolm Creer (17 yards) have also contributed on the ground this season.
Junior Alex Wood is listed as the top fullback with Powell positioned behind him.
Due to graduation as well as the season-ending injury to star Paul Richardson, Colorado has been forced to usher in a completely new stable of wide receivers. Redshirt freshman Nelson Spruce and sophomore Tyler McCulloch are listed on the first team with true freshman Gerald Thomas and sophomore Keenan Canty behind Spruce and senior Dustin Ebner and junior Alex Turbow behind McCulloch.
Spruce has emerged as a potential long-term impact player with his 24 catches for 260 yards, while McCulloch has totaled 19 receptions for 238 yards. Thomas has impressed as a true freshman, hauling in 10 catches for 115 yards. Ebner has three receptions to his credit in 2012 and Canty has caught one pass.
At tight end, Nick Kasa is posted as the starter with Kyle Slavin, Vincent Hobbs, DaVaughn Thornton and Scott Fernandez behind him. Kasa has been substantially productive this year, with 168 yards on only seven catches with two scores. Thornton (five receptions), Slavin (five receptions) and Hobbs (three receptions) have also been regularly involved in the offense.
Colorado's offensive line consists of standout David Bakhtiari at left tackle, Alexander Lewis at left guard, Gus Handler at center, Daniel Munyer at right guard and Jack Harris at right tackle.
Colorado Offense in a Nutshell
Colorado ranks among the nation's bottom 20-25 teams in multiple offensive categories, but the two that figure to pique the interest of ASU is that the Buffaloes rank 115th in the FBS in tackles for loss allowed (8.0 per game) and next to last in the nation—119th—in sacks allowed (4.4). These statistics are generally comparable to Cal's statistical averages when the Sun Devils played in Berkeley two weeks ago and ASU was able to establish clear line of scrimmage dominance against the Golden Bears.
Additionally for the Buffalo offense, the team's total and scoring offenses rank 100th in the nation, with the rush offense ranking 104th. Though the pass offense has been slightly better by ranking 72nd in the nation, the team's pass efficiency rating places only 98th in the country.
Essentially, Colorado is vastly ineffective at protecting its rushers and passers, and when the quarterback has time to pass the efficiency of the position has been generally subpar. There are some talented skill players on the Buffalo roster, but the prowess of the Sun Devil might negate those players' athletic gifts this game.
If Colorado allows ASU to impose its defensive will and suffocate the Buffaloes' field position, the game could quickly spin out of control for the home team. However, ASU has had lapses in run defense through the first five games and CU's combo of Jones and Powell can gather chunks of yardage if openings exist.
In all, Colorado's ability to make any sort of offensive impact likely rests on the throwing arm of Webb. Ideally, ASU would like to harass Webb as it did Zach Maynard for Cal, as his ineffectiveness was a major catalyst in the Sun Devils' win. The matchup of Colorado's offensive line versus ASU's defensive pressure is one that drastically favors the Sun Devils on paper, so the Buffaloes will require an uncharacteristically valiant effort to create an unexpected outcome.
Up front, Chidera Uzo-Diribe and Will Pericak form one of the league's most prominent defensive end pairings—though Pericak has been also used inside at defensive tackle.
Uzo-Diribe is near the top of the Pac-12 with his 5.0 sacks and seven TFLs, all part of his 21 total tackles. Pericak has posted 27 total tackles thus far, with two TFLs including one sack.
Kirk Poston, Juda Parker and true freshman Samson Kafovalu are listed as the top reserves at either defensive end position, with true freshmen Tyler Henington and Justin Solis spotted as top backups at defensive tackle and nose tackle, respectively.
Poston is second on the team with 3.0 sacks as part of his 11 total tackles, while Solis has registered seven tackles and Parker has six. Henington and Kafovalu have combined for four total tackles.
Nate Bonsu is listed as the top option at defensive tackle with massive 325-pound true freshman Josh Tupou slated as the number one nose tackle.
Both Bonsu and Tupou have totaled 19 tackles, with Bonsu having also registered a sack and Tupou having chipped in three TFLs on the year.
At linebacker, Colorado features a solid combination of experienced veterans and capable youngsters, with senior MIKE Doug Rippy, senior SAM Jon Major and junior WILL Derrick Webb comprising the first team. Sophomore MIKE Brady Daigh, junior WILL Paul Vigo and sophomore SAM Woodson Greer are listed as the second team linebackers.
Webb leads the ground with 37 tackles including three TFLs, with Major not far behind with 36 tackles. Rippy has only appeared in two games this year due to injury, collecting two tackles.
In Rippy's place, Daigh has started the majority of the season, registering 17 tackles and two TFLs. Vigo has collected 17 tackles and three TFLs as a stable reserve ‘backer, while Greer has chipped in three tackles in four games.
Though there is experience in the secondary at safety, Colorado is tremendously young at cornerback, where three true freshmen and two sophomores comprise the top five players.
True freshman Kenneth Crawley and sophomore Greg Henderson are listed as the starters, with true freshmen Jeffrey Hall and Yuri Wright spotted as their backups. Sophomore Josh Moten is also listed as an option at cornerback.
Crawley is tied for the team lead with 40 total tackles while Henderson has 13 in only three games played. Wright has collected nine tackles, but Hall and Moten have seen only limited action—only two games out of five each—with one tackle between the pair.
The Buffaloes expect a boost to their defense with Brophy Prep product Ray Polk being healthy at free safety, with Parker Orms and Marques Mosley behind him. Orms and Mosley have seen increased playing time with Polk having appeared in only one game so far in 2012, with Orms collecting 33 tackles and two TFLs, with Mosley posting 17 tackles.
Junior Terrel Smith starts at strong safety with sophomore Jered Bell behind him. Smith currently is tied for the team lead with 40 tackles, while Bell has seen action in four of five games on the year.
Colorado Defense in a Nutshell
As a whole, Colorado's defense has been among the nation's poorest team in several categories that undoubtedly can lead to advantages for the Sun Devils.
On the year, Colorado is last in the Pac-12 and 115th among 120 FBS teams in both pass defense (308.8 yards per game) and scoring defense (39.4 points per game). The Buffaloes also have the league's worst defensive pass efficiency rating, ranking 114th in the nation in that field. Additionally, only Arizona has a worse squad in terms of total defense and red zone defense among Pac-12 teams.
What this all adds up to is a clear opportunity for Taylor Kelly to complete passes, for ASU to score points and for the Sun Devils to be successful in the red zone. If Devil offense is able to succeed in these categories, it is safe to believe that ASU's defense can hold its course to push the Sun Devils toward a comfortable victory.
However, for all the weaknesses of the Colorado defense, the Buffaloes do a decent job of getting into opposing backfields and to quarterbacks. On a national scale, CU ranks 30th in tackles-for-loss (7.0 per game) and 48th in sacks (2.2 per game). If the Buffaloes are able to consistently win battles with the Sun Devil offensive line, Colorado may be able to gain bits and pieces of momentum that can create larger advantageous opportunities.
Special Teams Preview
Colorado's kicking game has been a tale of two extremes this year, with one athlete being among the nation's most active at his position, while the other has been scarcely involved thus far.
Sophomore Darragh O'Neill has emerged as one of the nation's better punters, and with Colorado's offense he gets plenty of practice with 36 punts—among the top five most attempts in the FBS—for a 43.3-yard average.
As active as O'Neill has been, kicker Will Oliver has only attempted two field goals all year, with one make from 38 yards.
Jeffrey Hall has been solid on kickoff returns with a 26.8 yard average on five runs, with Marques Mosley and Donta Abron also seeing extensive time on kickoff returns.
Kenneth Crawley handles punt return duties for CU, averaging 6.3 yards on nine returns with a long of 24.
All pleasantries aside, this game should feature the opponent with the most significant talent deficiency since ASU faced Northern Arizona to start the season. That being said, the Devils can't treat the Buffaloes like a season-opening FCS foe.
In general, the outlook appears fairly simple in that if ASU focuses and executes the talent differential figures to be far too much for Colorado to overcome. The Colorado faithful undoubtedly will be jacked up for a nationally televised game and the Buffaloes will look for every possible window of opportunity in this game, but if the Sun Devil defense continues to dominate and ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly efficiently paces the Devil offense, Colorado should be able to be deflated with relative ease.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Focus in the 11th, not the 18th
Player for player, unit for unit, coach for coach, ASU has every clear-cut advantage. Colorado, however, can sneak toward an upset if the Sun Devils are noticeably focused on the potential sellout crowd coming to Sun Devil Stadium next Thursday when the second-ranked Oregon Ducks come to town. Despite Colorado's immense struggles this year, if ASU believes it can sleepwalk through this Thursday's game, the end results could be nightmarish.
One would imagine that the combination of bye week focus and the general disposition of Todd Graham and staff's disallowance of arrogance will enable the Devils to focus specifically on the task at hand and not the limelight the lime-colored visitors will provide ASU next week.
Eight current Sun Devils—Deveron Carr, Keelan Johnson, Kyle Johnson, Brandon Magee, James Morrison, A.J. Pickens, Andrew Sampson and Toa Tuitea—were on the roster and on the sidelines as true freshmen in 2008 when ASU was stunned by UNLV a week before third-ranked Georgia headed to Tempe. Hopefully that horrific, program-altering experience can also help serve as a reminder to take every opponent seriously.
Though ASU had a consistently sizeable advantage in field position against Cal, the Golden Bears remained competitive throughout the majority of the second half because the Sun Devils were not able to capitalize on the advantage. Though the competition level is not expected to be as fierce in Boulder as it was in Berkeley, ASU can help itself achieve an insurmountable edge if the offense can plow its way downfield for scores. This plan specifically applies to cashing red zone opportunities in for touchdowns and not field goal attempts, as ASU's kicking situation is shaky to say the least.
Don't Let Up
In ASU's two Pac-12 games against Cal and Utah, the Sun Devil defense has dictated the game's outcome by way of its relentless, attacking style. Colorado is statistically similar to California as the Buffaloes are among the nation's absolute worst teams in terms of protecting against tackles for loss and sacks. Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Junior Onyeali and company will undoubtedly be counted on to help set the tone for the Devils and create advantageous field position scenarios for the ASU offense. However, just as the team as a whole cannot afford to give a half-hearted effort, the Sun Devil defenders will have to go full-force on every snap and not allow Colorado to create any sort of offensive momentum.
• Colorado's Alex Lewis (Mountain Pointe High School), Ray Polk (Brophy Prep) and Kyle Washington (Florence High School) are Arizona natives. ASU's Charles Beatty and Isreal Marshall also attended Mountain Pointe while Alex Garoutte attended Brophy Prep. ASU verbal commit Nick Brown currently attends Florence High School.
• ASU's Ezekiel Bishop (Denver East High School), Junior Onyeali (Denver Mullen High School), Andrew Sampson (Aurora Overland High School) and Jake Sheffield (Aurora Gateway High School) are all Colorado natives.
• Colorado RB Donta Abron, RB Christian Powell and DB Marques Mosley attended Upland (Calif.) High
• School, as did ASU CB Osahon Irabor. ASU verbal commit James Johnson currently attends Upland High School.
• Colorado OL David Bakhtiari, LB Woodson Greer and WR Paul Richardson attended Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra High School, as did ASU CB Devan Spann.
• Colorado DL Nate Bonsu attended Allen (Texas) High School, where ASU's Todd Graham was head coach from 1995-2000.
• Colorado LB Brady Daigh, TB Josh Ford and DL Tyler Henington attended Denver (Colo.) Mullen High School, as did ASU's Junior Onyeali.
• Colorado P Zach Grossnickle and TE DaVaughn Thornton attended Denver (Colo.) East High School, as did ASU S Ezekiel Bishop.
• Colorado DB Greg Henderson attended Norco (Calif.) High School, the same as ASU's Carl Bradford, Kyle Johnson and Deantre Lewis.
• Colorado OL Daniel Munyer attended Sherman Oak (Calif.) Notre Dame High School, as did ASU OL Tyler Sulka.