In two-plus seasons under head coach Mike MacIntyre, the Colorado Buffaloes have struggled to remain competitive in Pac-12 conference games, as the nature of playing in one of the nation’s toughest divisions has slowed the program’s progress.
After turning the San Jose State program around in his previous stint as a head coach, MacIntyre’s undertaking with the Buffaloes has proven much more complicated as his arrival came shortly after the school transitioned from the Big 12 to the Pac-12.
Colorado is nearly 25 years removed from its heyday as a national contender in the early 1990s, and in the past 10 seasons, the Buffaloes have hit on hard times under Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree. In 2013, Colorado turned to MacIntyre to rebuild the program from scratch, and his task has proved as challenging as any for a power five conference head coach based on the recent track record of the program he inherited.
Though MacIntyre won just a lone conference game in his first two seasons with the Buffaloes (1-17), the slow yet steady upturn in the talent level of the program’s key players, specifically on offense, is becoming noticeable.
In his first season at the helm, MacIntrye thrust a true freshman, Sefo Liufau into the spotlight midway through the season as the starting quarterback. Though Liufau may not have been prepared to play just yet, the move allowed the Buffaloes to grow around a young leader, and in his third year in MacIntyre’s system, Liufau has developed into a much more competent passer and game manager.
This season, the Buffaloes are hoping to begin an ascent through the Pac-12 South, and the program showed signs of promise in its conference opener against the Oregon Ducks. Before falling 41-24 last Saturday, Liufau and the Buffaloes proved they could move the football against the Ducks defense, but ultimately squandered too many opportunities with costly turnovers.
Nevertheless, the Buffaloes resurgence was palpable for ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who outlined the year-to-year improvements Colorado’s offense has made following Wednesday’s practice.
“I think they’ve got solid depth at running back, I see the quarterback (Liufau) executing the offense, he’s a lot more comfortable spreading the ball around and managing everything,” Patterson said. “I think they have two receivers that are great, with Spruce and I think they’re very balanced in what they do. If they continue to try to establish the run, and spread the ball around the field, it makes them tough because they throw the ball short and then try to hit you over the top vertically.”
One of the few luxuries MacIntyre enjoyed when he took over the program was a receiving corps chock-full of explosive Pac-12 talent. Though the Buffaloes have lagged behind other conference foes in recruiting in recent years, Liufau had a dynamic offensive weapon from the first moment he stood under center in 2014 Seattle Seahawks second round draft pick Paul Richardson.
The presence of Richardson allowed Liufau to ease into his role, and as teams caught on to their connection, the quarterback began fostering a relationship with current senior receiver Nelson Spruce.
Spruce has emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top receiving threats, and his 6.2 receptions per game rank No. 29 in the nation and third in the Pac-12 behind only Washington State’s Gabe Marks and USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster
Spruce spearheaded the Buffaloes attack against ASU last season, recording seven catches for 97 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His performance is stuck in the mind of senior cornerback Kweishi Brown, who didn’t cover Spruce last year, but is eager to prove he can be successful against him this year.
“I didn’t get to cover him (Spruce) last year, because I started out playing nickel back, so I didn’t get to guard him,” Brown said. “So I feel like this is my chance to show him who he’s been missing out on, and that’s what I’ve got to do on Saturday.”
As Patterson eluded to, the Buffaloes’ goal is to establish the run and hit on throws underneath its vertical routes in voided areas before beating teams over the top, and Brown said ASU needs to remain cognizant of Spruce’s alignment and play-making capabilities on every play. The senior is Liufau’s primary target, and Colorado’s scheme allows Spruce to find holes in the defense because Liufau is also strong at finding his running backs in patterns.
Much like USC’s Cody Kessler and UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Liufau isn’t afraid to take what the defense gives to him and find running backs underneath the coverage in hopes of moving the chains with short patterns, but MacIntyre is more of a Pistol style approach.
One significant difference in the Buffaloes’ scheme is their willingness to send their running backs out in deeper patterns, and sometimes in crossing routes to keep linebackers occupied and stress the space between second and third level defenders. Brown said the concepts are more similar to what the Trojans did to ASU than any other team, and because of that, the Sun Devils are expecting the Buffaloes to target backs and crossing routes frequently, especially on third down.
“They’re kind of similar to USC, they throw their backs out and we’re kind of used to that now,” Brown said. “We’ve got to dial in as a defense against that and everybody has to do their part.”
Though Spruce and sophomore wide receiver Shay Fields are the players ASU’s defensive backfield will remain focused on, the linebackers will have their hands full with sophomore running back Phillip Lindsay and senior running back Christian Powell who command defenses’ attention in space.
Redshirt junior Spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola said ASU has a tremendous amount of respect for the way Colorado game plans to incorporate its backs into the passing game, and said the Buffaloes have done an excellent job this season at identifying opponents’ weaknesses and targeting them.
Moeakiola indicated ASU has attempted to shore up some of the holes USC exposed against the Sun Devils two weeks ago, and said the defense is looking forward to the challenges the Buffaloes present.
“They do a great job of getting the ball out to their skill players, they’ve got great athletes and speed on the perimeter and they do a good job finding the X's and O’s for good matchups,” Moeakiola said. “They’ve done a great job of that this whole season, so we’ve just got to focus on us and what we’ve been doing last week and this whole season.”
When asked about comparing Colorado’s approach to USC’s game plan from two weeks ago, Moeakiola said the Buffaloes actually resemble quite a few Pac-12 programs in their offensive philosophy.
Both Patterson and Moeakiola said Colorado has playmakers on the outside, but it’s the Buffaloes’ commitment to the run that creates problems for opponents. Colorado will often have heavier personnel groupings with multiple tight ends and wing-backs. If Powell and Lindsay get going early, the Buffaloes are able to force teams to put extra defenders in the box, which frees up Liufau’s ability to find Spruce and Fields on the outside.
“I see a lot of similar things around the Pac-12, because you see a lot of similar read-option offenses that try to balance things with the run,” Moeakiola said. “They’ve got great athletes that do a lot of good things out of the backfield and it’s just another challenge for us this week.”
In its first two conference games, ASU has done an excellent job at slowing down its opponent’s rushing attack. Against USC, the Sun Devils limited the Trojans to 2.4 yards per carry, and against UCLA, the Sun Devils were even more impressive in bottling up the run as they held the Bruins to just 2.2 yards per carry.
One of the significant factors in ASU’s run-stopping success was the penetration from the Sun Devils’ defensive line that forced ball carriers off their tracks and toward the perimeter of the defense.
So far this season, Moeakiola said Colorado’s backs are some of the best he’s seen at maintaining patience and hitting the assigned hole on run plays, which means the onus is once again on the Sun Devils’ front seven to dominate the line of scrimmage and force the Buffaloes into a one-dimensional approach.
“They (Colorado’s running backs) do a good job of getting ball security and getting the ball north and south, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Moeakiola said. “That opens my eye as an offense for them is they get the ball north and south rather than you know, east and west so they do a good job of reading the holes and hitting it and not tip-toeing through the holes.”
After suffering a pair of early season defeats, head coach Todd Graham said the Sun Devils are playing each week as a single-elimination contest. That kind of mentality can help a team against the likes of Colorado, which has struggled in recent years, but has made enough improvements to become a formidable Pac-12 foe this season. After putting an early scare in Oregon, the Buffaloes faltered and couldn’t notch their first conference win of the season. This week, the Sun Devils expect Colorado’s offense to continue to reflect the steady improvements the program has shown, but Brown said ASU isn’t going to tolerate a letdown performance.
“They’re a pretty good team, they’re a solid team and we can’t take them lightly,” Brown said. “Even though they’re Colorado, they’ve been ranked pretty much last, but they’ve got players, they’ve got a good coaching staff, we can’t take them lightly. We’ve got to play from here on out every day is a championship game.”
With the apparent re-emergence of ASU’s historically potent offense Saturday against UCLA, the Sun Devils will look to use its strength in the run game to dominate an uninspiring Buffaloes’ run defense.
Just last week against Oregon, the Ducks put up 361 rushing yards on the Buffaloes behind sophomore running back Royce Freeman’s 163 rushing yards and freshman running back Taj Griffin’s 112 rushing yards. Even earlier in the season, the Buffaloes gave up 218 rushing yards to Colorado State, 147 yards to UMass, and 100 yards to Hawaii.
On Saturday, the Sun Devils will look to have similar success on the ground against a Colorado team who ranks No. 10 in the Pac-12 for average rushing yards allowed per game with 190.4, and No. 11 in yards per attempt at 4.6. Through five games, ASU has averaged 169.2 rushing yards per game.
“Just with every defense, it’s more of us coming out and establishing the run and establishing just who we are as the o-line,” senior offensive tackle William McGehee said on Thursday. “So being physical, establishing the run, and just basically coming out and doing our job. With every defense we treat it the same. We focus more on our technique and establish everything we want to establish.”
In addition to struggling with its run defense, Colorado will be without two of its starting linebackers. Junior starting linebacker Addison Gillam has been out due to a knee injury for the past four games and junior starting linebacker Kenneth Olugbode left the game against Oregon due to a leg injury.
“I know that they kind of have some injured guys at linebacker so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, anybody can step in and make plays for them obviously, but the experience is a big thing,” ASU sophomore running back Kalen Ballage said. “We’re really just trying to play to our own strengths. We’re not too worried about what they’re doing right now, but just focused on us.”
With the Sun Devils planning to focus more on their own scheme rather than Colorado’s defensive attack, McGehee said the main focuses for the offensive line are being assignment sound and making sure their techniques are up to par.
However, ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen saw positives in Colorado's defensive performance against Oregon last Saturday and noted how Colorado’s defensive scheme has been different than in years' past with the new hire of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.
“Last year they were more of a four down team and now they’ve changed,” Thomsen said. “They still do a little four down, but they’re more, especially on run downs, they’re more 3-4 like [USC] and UCLA have been and the nose guard is a big, huge man and he’s really a big physical player. The two ends, two of them have transferred in. So those guys have added a dimension of toughness to their line and I think their defense plays hard and they’re well-coached.”
In terms of the Buffaloes defensive scheme, Thomsen said they have been similar to the way USC and UCLA have operated this season. Like his coach, McGehee said the Buffaloes’ defense is similar to most of the teams in the Pac-12 and while they are like any team in the conference who likes to blitz, they also like to play their opponents man-to-man.
“They aren’t going to try to fool you a lot, but they’re going to play sound,” Thomsen said. “They’ve got some packages that you’ve got to be sharp on. So there’s some things if you’re not sharp on what you’re doing on some of their blitzes, then they’ll get to you and they have got some people with it, but it’s kind of a normal week.”
While still trying to focus on ASU’s schemes, Ballage said to him, the Buffaloes seem very “conservative” on the defensive side of the ball when it comes to blitzing, but whatever the case, he’s comfortable being used as a blocker in those situations.
“They’ll blitz a few linebackers here and there and we have to be able to pick that up when we’re passing and stuff like that and be able to run good run plays into their blitzes, “ Ballage said.
With ASU is more focused on its own execution, McGehee said he has trust in the Sun Devils running backs that they will get the job done and exploit the Buffaloes’ defense when the opportunities present themselves.
“They (ASU running backs) know where to run and that’s the beauty of them, just their vision,” McGehee said. “They’re able to see where the hole is and be able to hit it quick. I mean as you look at Kalen last game, he did a great job of finding the hole and getting those extra yards.”
Ballage, who grew up in Peyton, Colorado, said he is looking forward to playing -- and beating -- his home state team on Saturday. In ASU’s game last year against Colorado, while Ballage recorded no rushing yards, he scored a touchdown off a 38-yard pass from former ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly in the first quarter to give ASU a 14-0 lead en route to a 38-24 victory.
This year, while Ballage had to sit out the first three games due to mono, he finally is starting to look back up to speed and said he’s ready to do whatever it takes to help ASU get the win on Saturday.
“They (the Buffaloes) play hard,” Ballage said. “They play very hard. (Colorado head coach Mike) Maclntyre is a great football coach and he knows what he’s doing and really he tries to put them in the best position to make plays and our offense is going to have to take that away from them.”
If ASU doesn't turn the ball over, its ability to have success against Colorado will ride on the growing improvements of its offensive line. Thomsen said the group's confidence has grown since its first outing against Texas A&M, especially the confidence of his offensive tackles. The Sun Devils haven't been exposed by pass rushers since that outing, and have given Mike Bercovici more time to operate in the pocket and establish a rapport with his receivers.
“I think we’re getting better,” Thomsen said. “Still I think we got a big enough improvement ahead of us and I think guys are focused on doing that and so kind of been a better progression since that first week, but still a lot of little things that sometimes the ball gets out quick and it doesn’t get exposed and then sometimes it does, so it’s still a work in progress, but I think they made some improvements.”
Thomsen said so far, the offensive line hasn’t been executing at its highest level fundamentally and there were specifically a couple things against UCLA that hindered them in the run game even though they had almost 200 rushing yards against the Bruins.
“We need to be a little more sound schematically this week and fundamentally we got to be a lot better,” Thomsen said. “If we do that, we have a chance to run the football well. You give yourself a chance, the defense always has something to say about that too, but we got to do that. If we want to win we got to do that.”