Breaking Down Colorado’s Offense

Colorado’s offensive performance has greatly varied from its first contest to its second, and the Buffaloes’ unit is trending up more than doubling their point output from 14 to 41. What can Arizona State expect this week as they travel to Boulder? Ross Dunham talked to the Sun Devils’ defensive coordinator and players on that topic.

From a defensive standpoint, the tough part about playing a triple-option opponent just like ASU did versus New Mexico is that coaches and players can’t take much away from the game and build upon that for the next week just because the offense is so much different from those around the nation.

Yes, Arizona State struggled defensively in the first half of last week’s 58-23 win over New Mexico, but the errors had to do specifically with nuances in defending the triple-option, according to defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.

“It’s one of those games where you evaluate it and put it in the bank for the next time you play a triple option team and hopefully you learn from some of the mistakes we made,” Patterson said. “It’s like every week though where you hit that on and off switch put that one behind you and move forward.”

Looking ahead, the Sun Devils face a Colorado offense that looks familiar. The reason being the Buffaloes employ a scheme very similar to that of Mike Norvell’s at ASU.

Much like ASU, Colorado runs plenty of package plays -- those that can either be runs or passes depending on the quarterback’s reads of the defense.

“It’s very similar to our offense with all of the run/pass options,” Patterson said. “I think our preparation from what we see in the spring and what we see in the fall helps us in trying to defend that. We are a little bit more familiar with it because we see it more often. This week, obviously when you have the number of repetitions that we have seeing the run/pass options on certain plays and certain formations, we are a lot more prepared for that.”

While both offenses are run similarly, there are extreme differences, one being the type of personnel on the field. Arizona State has dynamic playmakers in the backfield and out wide, which allows Norvell to attack the defense in many ways. Most of Colorado’s playmakers are at the wide receiver position, and that shift’s the style of play calling to one direction, according to Sun Devil cornerback Lloyd Carrington.

“They are a more pass-oriented team,” Carrington said. “I would say they pose more of a threat passing the ball because of their formations and all of the play action shots. There are a lot of things that could get you off guard if you aren’t focusing on your keys. But we are pretty confident as a defense going into this.”

On tape, Colorado is a team that uses the run to set up the play action pass along with getting defenders out of position for the screen game in the run/pass options.

An example of that was shown in the Buffaloes first game of the season.

Here Colorado lines up in one of its favorite spread formation looks. After handing the ball off a handful of times early in this game, watch the progression of this play.

The linemen are blocking as if the play is a run to the left, but quarterback Sefo Liufau pulls the ball and throws to a waiting Shay Fields.

With decent blocking from the slot receiver on the corner, Fields turns it up and runs for a gain of five yards on the play and the first down.

Typically as the first line of defense on the quick screen passes out wide, it can be tough on a corner to stop an easy gain of five.

“At times it can be difficult,” Carrington explained. “But it’s all about reading your keys and knowing your assignment and trusting the other 10 guys on the field with you that they’re going to do their jobs. Everything else will work out.”

Another variation of the run/pass options that Colorado runs is the inside zone/tight end pop pass combination. It’s on this play where the linebackers will get tested the most. Over commit to the run, and the tight end pass can go for 10+ yards.

Here’s a look at one of the styles of pop passes the Buffaloes use:

With “11” personnel on the field (one running back and one tight end), the tight end lines up to the left of the line of scrimmage next to the left tackle.

At the snap, the offensive linemen once again block for a run, and the tight end looks to be just leaving the engagement with the defensive end. The play action along with the low hats of the offensive line draws up the linebackers anticipating an inside handoff.

With the linebackers out of position, Liufau is able to find tight end Sean Irwin for an easy completion and a pickup of 10 yards.

Now of course, Colorado doesn’t solely run package plays on offense. They’ll try to utilize their playmakers in multiple ways, but Patterson said ASU has a good feel of what the Buffs are trying to do.

“We have identified the guys that they want to try and get the ball to in certain groupings,” Patterson said. “The thing you can’t allow to happen, is that you spend so much time focusing on the people they do try to get the ball and then you let someone else make big plays. We just have to be sound on what we are doing and stay disciplined.”

While there are other threats, through the first two games Nelson Spruce has emerged as the main target for Liufau, already hauling in 249 yards and four touchdowns on the year.

“Spruce has become a vertical threat this year compared to what he was a year ago,” Patterson said. “He was a possession type guy and he’s really done a nice job of developing himself into a good route runner and he’s stretching the field vertically.

“The thing that’s helping him do that is they have a couple of other young men that they’re spreading the ball around to. I think the quarterback has done a nice job of moving the ball around and being disciplined when he does take his shots down field.”

Depending on the formation and where Spruce lines up, Carrington will be tasked with covering the Buff’s no. 1 option outside.

“He’s a talented guy, but I’m pretty confident going in,” Carrington said. “The main thing is just really trusting myself – I know how good I am. Playing confident and using the things Coach Graham has taught me – and we are going to have a great scheme, the main thing is just to execute.”

It’s that execution that has separated Arizona State from a team like Colorado in the last few years. With the added experience of defending a similar offense in practice every day, look for the Devils to be extremely active on defense.

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