Colorado Offensive Scheme
Lost in the big picture of Colorado's disappointing 2-10 (0-9) 2014 season and masked by remarkable offensive potency in a Pac-12 that included nine teams which averaged 30 or more points per game last season was the clear progress of the Buffaloes' overall offensive capability.
The Buffaloes averaged more than 400 yards total offense for the first time since they won the Big 12 in 2001 and finished No. 19 nationally in passing offense and No. 37 in total offense.
Colorado is led on the offensive side of the ball by coordinator Brian Lindgren, a man who knows something about big offensive production. A three-year starter at quarterback for Idaho from 2002-2004, Lindgren threw for 6,541 yards and 44 touchdowns and set a FBS mark for sophomores with 637 passing yards and five touchdowns in a win over Middle Tennessee State.
Lindgren was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona prior to joining Mike MacIntyre as his offensive coordinator for MacIntyre's final season at San Jose State before taking their respective jobs at Colorado in 2012.
Running what amounts to an amalgamation of various offensive philosophies, Lindgren has perhaps unsurprisingly said he's been heavily influenced by current Washington head coach Chris Petersen from Petersen's days at Boise State, when he was considered a very innovative offensive coach in the college football community.
While leading the Broncos to incredible success over eight seasons that included a 92-12 overall record, Petersen developed a reputation for his willingness to craft a unique offense that wasn't easily able to be categorized or lumped in with others.
Lindgren has taken his cue from Petersen and developed an offense that borrows from a lot of different schemes but doesn't have an easily identifiable overriding philosophy. At its essence is a desire to use a lot of different formations and a fair amount of motions and shifts in order to disguise its simplicity. The goal is to make defenses think, communicate and adjust on the fly to a wide variety of possibilities, but Colorado is going to do a handful of things over and over.
The big play shots down the field that Colorado has become known for are often high risk, high reward. They frequently come on first down, when most opponents are less likely to pressure and there is more time for a quarterback to wait for the play to develop. But this also often puts Colorado behind schedule on subsequent downs and thus, Colorado is a team that sometimes struggles to sustain drives but gets high yield plays.
In the run game, Colorado will pound the ball inside out of a Pistol or short shotgun formation in zone and man blocking fronts, and not use its quarterback in much of a read option functionality. It pulls its left guard quite a bit to man blocking on the play side and uses the standard inside zone concepts. It loves to try to create outside lanes to run the football in so-called 'D' and 'E' gaps by creating numbers advantages, and get the ball there via wide sweeping runs, often with multiple tight ends.
Buffaloes junior quarterback Sefo Liufau is a play extension quarterback who prefers to throw the football to using his feet, but Lindgren will move the pocket with him, and get him in bootleg situations to move the chains. A high percentage of his runs are by design to get him in space.
Ultimately, there's a lot of window dressing and balace designed to cultivate the opportunity to yield vertical attacks to three speedy receivers, led by Nelson Spruce and Shay Fields. Most frequently, Colorado will have tight ends or receivers occupy the seam on intermediate curls in order to divert zone safety coverage from the perimeter deep receiver it wants to target. A lot of these routes are simply play action go routes by Spurce on the field side operating in a lot of space, or Fields into the boundary, often out of two and three receiver sets that leave the secondary less cluttered.
Just as USC and UCLA tried to target ASU Bandit Jordan Simone vertically with twins into the boundary, that's again another possibility in this game and Spurce and Fields have three catches of more than 20-yards apiece this season.
To promote the balanced attack Colorado wants to demonstrate, it will mix in perimeter screens and flood the field side and slip backs into vertical routes behind it to generate mismatches, induce confusion and create zones in which it can be uncovered. It will also work Spruce and Fields on slants and crossing routes to lull defenders into giving up leverage for the big plays down field.
Colorado lacks the offensive personnel to be able to fully expoit its scheme. Liufau is much more ball secure this year versus 2014, when he threw 15 interceptions, but he's still just a run-of-the-mill quarterback in the Pac-12. The offensive line he works behind is now patchwork with injury woes and not especially potent in the run game. Its running backs are not dynamic, though undersized Phillip Lindsay is versatile and a big play receiving threat.
Colorado Offensive Personnel
Sefo Liufau -- At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, Liufau moves well enough for his size that he can evade pass rushers or stay upright, and he's a play extension quarterback who keeps his eyes downfield and would like to throw the ball more than tuck it and run. He's grown up quite a bit from last season when he had a league-worst 15 interceptions and generally lacked seasoning that manifested in a lot of jeopardy throws because he didn't have good on-demand recall of protection weaknesses and where he could get rid of the football. He's accurate down the field and can make teams pay when they afford man coverage and don't impact the pocket.
Nelson Spruce -- One of the best route runners in the country, Spurce is also deceptively athletic and especially functional when operating at full speed. His focus level and ability to make plays on the football at maximim output is remarkable. Last season Spurce tied for the Pac-12 lead with 106 catches and 12 touchdowns. He's both a possession receiver who moves the chains on third and medium and long and also a big play target on first down, when Colorado likes to take shots.
Shay Fields -- Fields isn't nearly as well rounded as Spruce but no less speedy and he also makes plays on the football down the field with good physical composure, which a lot of smaller, more athletic receivers leave a lot to be desired from a skill set standpoint. Fields is usually either a guy the Buffs will get the ball to quickly in space and try to let his quickness make a play, or else on a 40-plus yard heave.
Phillip Lindsay -- The most versatile and dynamic of Colorado's running backs, Lindsay can access the perimeter better than his teammate Christian Powell, and is more of a vertical threat -- read: danger -- in the passing game, but he's also less likely to break a tackle on the interior or use brute power to make a play.
ASU Defense Against Colorado Offense
The Buffaloes have been banged up along the offensive front with just two starters who appear very reliable, and they are apparently going to be doing a reshuffling of the deck in this game. With that in mind, and Liufau's reluctance to scramble other than when needed, coupled with Colorado's big shot tendency on first downs, we can expect ASU will bring a lot of pressure on first down to try to be disruptive. Powell isn't likely going to be able to get a lot of yards rushing on the ASU defense because he lacks the speed but Lindsay can't access the perimeter or be lost in coverage. Colorado loves trying to extend its wide-sweeping runs to the perimeter without its linemen in sync -- not outside zone stretch -- which is an adjustment ASU will have to make. A lot of Colorado's run game can be disrupted by pressure at the point of attack with how the Buffaloes like to pull their left guard. The left tackle spot has been a weakness. ASU's going to be tested in the secondary in this game and corners Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington will have to hold up in man coverage against really tough assignments. ASU has to try to make sure Jordan Simone isn't in man coverage against the speedy Fields, or if he is, there's a plan in place to allow him enough cushion and underneath support to make it work. But because Colorado wants to pump it down the field deep, you can expect ASU coach Todd Graham to try to force the ball out of Liufau's hand prematurely, and that will largely determine just how successful ASU is.
Colorado Defensive Scheme
Last season, Colorado fielded arguably the worst defense in the Pac-12. It ranked last in rushing defense at 204.8 yards allowed per game, which was a staggering 35 more than the next worst team, and gave up 5.6 yards per carry, with the next worst team yielding 4.6 yards. It was also 11 of 12 in pass efficiency defense, 11 of 12 in sacks generated, 12 of 12 in red zone defense.
The poor defensive play in Boulder has been an indictment of Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre because he cut his teeth as a defensive coach and coordinator. It was the job he did coordinating the Duke defense in 2008-2009 which led to MacIntyre's first head coaching job, at San Jose State. He turned the Spartans completely around in three seasons, as they went 1-11 his first season, 2010, and finished 10-2 in 2012, which included the school's first ever BCS Top-25 ranking.
After MacIntyre's first two Colorado teams combined to go 1-17 in the Pac-12 though, defensive coordinator Kent Baer -- a big part of MacIntyre's success at San Jose State as the defensive coordiantor and a name ASU fans may know as he was the ASU defensive coordinator in 1992-94 under Bruce Snyder -- was jettisoned to UNLV.
MacIntyre then brought in JIm Leavitt to run the defense, the former South Florida coach who was fired in 2010 after an investigation revealed he'd struck a player at halftime of a game. Leavitt landed as the San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach, where he spent four seasons until returning to the college game with Colorado this season.
Before he took the South Florida job in 1996, Leavitt worked with now-Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops under legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, where the men worked to overhaul a defense that was a perennial doormat, and eventually turn it into one of the best in the country. The Wildcats went from No. 93 in total defense in 1990 to No. 1 in 1995, which led to Leavitt getting the head job at South Florida and Stoops at Oklahoma.
Leavitt's defensive approach is somewhat similar to that of Stanford's from a schematic standpoint, a reality which makes sense considering now-Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh hired him to work for the 49ers as linebackers coach. But this is a much-less refined defense and certainly far less capable, with Leavitt just trying to install and get the basics of the sytem down.
Leavitt doesn't have anywhere near the caliber of talent much less experience from a personnel standpoint to be able to execute a lot of the more nuanced and sophisticated things he'd like to at this stage of the process, and whether he'll be able to get there at any point remains to be seen.
Using what essentially amounts to an odd-front 3-3-5 defense, Colorado remains relatively weak against the run, yielding 300-plus yards on the ground to Oregon last week and more than 200 to Colorado State earlier in the year. At the point of attack the Buffaloes have some size led by generously listed 325 pound senior nose tackle Justin Solis but lack athleticism and are extremely blockable.
The Buffaloes won't have either of their two best inside linebackers for this game, including leading tackler Kenneth Olugbode due to injury and that will further hamper their ability to stop the run. They have had to heavily rely on members of the secondary to help in run support far too often to be successful.
With a relatively conservative approach, Colorado doesn't tend to blitz a lot but will sometimes bring hybrid player Chidobe Awuzie, who plays a field side alley role similar to how ASU uses Laiu Moeakiola. When it gets really aggressive it will frequently pair Awuzie with field side safety Tedric Thompson on overload blitzes from the wide side or at times bring Awuzie with one of the inside backers.
Colorado is similar to ASU in how it employs personnel, with a boundary side hybrid linebacker-rush end and boundary and field side safety roles. One of the main differences is that it zones drops the boundary end more, and doesn't flip its cornerbacks from boundary to field side.
Colorado Defensive Personnel
Chidobe Awuzie -- (No. 4) A field side hybrid safety/linebacker who is more on the safety scale like ASU's Laiu Moeakiola, Awuzie has a similar type role. A 6-foot-0, 195 pound junior, he's asked to manage slot receivers, be stout in the alley against the run, and blitz on occasion. Awuzie is one of Colorado's more athletic defenders, hence the demanding hybrid role. He leads the team in tackles for loss due to the variety of ways he's used, but if he's having to make too many plays, it's not a good thing for Colorado.
Justin Solis (No. 57) -- A huge nose tackle that Colorado tends to shade into the gap between the center and guard, Solis is a senior who didn't start last season but played extensively and was a sometimes-starter as a sophomore. Generously listed at 325 pounds, Solis is heavy-legged and doesn't run well, and his leverage is inconsistent but he has a good motor. After ASU center Nick Kelly had to go against UCLA's Kenny Clark last week, this should be a much more favorable matchup, and ASU could punish Colorado at the point of attack.
Ryan Moeller (No. 25) -- A boundary safety, Moeller is used quite a bit like a lesser version of ASU's Jordan Simone. The 6-foot-1, 210 pound sophomore is a darting short-side run support player who at times will take poor angles and has to be careful not to be exposed in the passing game. He is second on the team with 35 tackles and is forced to make a lot of big-play saving stops in space.
Tedric Thompson (No. 9) -- One of Colorado's best overall athletes, Thompson plays the field safety position and fills a variety of roles. Though Colorado isn't nearly as aggressive as ASU, sometimes Thompson ends up in man coverage in wide swaths of field, and occassionally he'll creep down and blitz from outside the tackle box. But Thompson is at his best as a zone defender over the top where he can use his plus-range to close to the football.
ASU Offense Against Colorado Defense
This is a pretty straightforward gameplan if you're the Sun Devils this week. Colorado doesn't hold up well in the box physically against the run and is young and inexperienced with backup inside linebackers. The Sun Devils should be able to run for 250-plus yards with sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage having a field day. Colorado plays a lot of relaxed coverage at cornerback and is able to be exploited via the full gamut of the screen game, from the perimeter to inside. There should be a lot of opportunity for ASU to generate explosive plays with throws to its backs and perimeter screens. This could be a game in which senior D.J. Foster gets to be showcased in a hybrid role. ASU probably won't need to pump the ball down the field with senior quarterback Mike Bercovici nor convert many long third downs in order to move the ball effectively. Colorado also lacks edge or interior pass rushers and won't figure to challenge ASU's pocket integrity. This is a great opportunity for ASU to build on its coming-out-of-its-shell offensive performance from last week against UCLA.
Colorado Special Teams
The Buffaloes have a kicker with a big leg, having connected on multiple 52 yard field goals this season already. Their kickoff return game is second in the Pac-12, but they've been susceptible to big returns on kickoffs.
At home, this should be an easy game for the Sun Devils, as Colorado's run defense and overall capability on that side of the football isn't good enough to keep ASU in check unless it's execution is flat out poor. The Buffaloes are going to make some big plays in the passing game but not run the ball much, and Liufau is a turnover candidate, especially when Colorado gets behind and has to take more chances. This is a game in which ASU could have a big return on special teams or a defensive takeaway that results in a touchdown and its offense should have 250-plus rushing yards and 500 total yards. ASU should roll. We have it 47-20 Sun Devils.