Ten Takeaways: Colorado

What were our biggest impressions from ASU's win over Colorado and how it reflects on the Sun Devils more broadly to this point in the season?

1. Senior Devil backer Antonio Longino had probably his best game at Arizona State with 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. He led ASU with eight tackles on the night and only one of the tackles was assisted. After the game we asked ASU coach Todd Graham about Longino's season in the broader context of Longino perhaps being asked to play out of position. As you may recall, Longino was moved from Devil to WILL linebacker in the middle of last season, where he excelled and ASU's defense showed real improvement. Graham is good at effectively tailoring his scheme to fit personnel and has done so for Longino at Devil, but the position is at its best serviced by an explosive 3-point pass rusher, and that's not really Longino's game. But he's making a lot of plays this season against the run, and a remarkable 28 of Longino's 31 total tackles this season have been of the solo variety. 

2. There's no better indication of how reliant ASU is on solo tackles and its ability to make plays defensively in isolation than the fact that the three leading solo tacklers in the Pac-12 are all Sun Devils. Junior linebacker Salamo Fiso, who is having an all-conference type season at the SAM linebacker position, is leading the league with 45 tackles, followed immediately by senior safety Jordan Simone with 41 and sophomore ASU linebacker Christian Sam with 33. What are the odds of one team having the three leading solo tacklers through half of the regular season? Graham is such an attack oriented coach that his philosophical approach requires linebackers and safeties to make a lot of big-play saving tackles and his players are responding to that challenge, especially against the run. 

3. Colorado is known for its heavy reliance on big play passes and though it was never really in the game against ASU, converted on passes of 68, 67 ad 42 yards. Statistically, ASU’s pass defense is now the worst in the Pac-12 in average yards yielded per pass at 7.8 yards. It has yielded 11 passing touchdowns and its pass efficiency defense is well below average, at 133.8, which is No. 10 in the league. ASU’s cornerback play has been very good this season, but defenses have exploited ASU’s safeties in the the passing game, with Jordan Simone and Kareem Orr giving up some home run shots. ASU puts its safeties in a lot more man conflict situations and zero coverage than most other teams and this is a byproduct of that, but with pass-heavy Washington State and Cal on the horizon of the second half, it's something that has to be pointed out. 

4. Junior wide receiver Tim White is starting to become a go-to weapon for ASU and one of its best skill position players, especially when factoring in his kickoff return potency. After Colorado, White is leading the Pac-12 with 28.5 yards per kickoff return, a sign that he's an explosive linear athlete who also has an ability to evade blocks. It further demonstrates that first-year special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is on the right track fro a schematic standpoint. But White isn't only doing it on special teams. He's now the No. 8 player in the Pac-12 in yards from scrimmage per game, and that's after essentially not playing against Texas A&M in the opener and being lightly used against Cal Poly in the second ASU game of the year due to a broken hand. White had seven catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns Saturday against the Buffaloes, with one of those long touchdowns being the result of a favorable bounce off a Colorado defender. Nonetheless, White is really emerging at the right time for ASU. 

5. Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez has been so good on kickoffs for ASU that it makes you wonder why he wasn't being used in the role prior to this season. Saturday, all nine of Gonzalez's kickoffs were touchbacks and most were kicked out of the end zone entirely. Last season, Graham lamented ASU's struggles on kickoff coverage with Alex Garoutte often struggling to get the ball near the goal line, much less 10-15 yards deeper, as Gonzalez has consistently done. Sure, Garoutte was a very good tackler on the kickoff team, but ASU hasn't needed any tacklers hardly at all this year with Gonzalez in the role. 

6. ASU is now tied for the Pac-12 lead with 19 sacks and leading the conference and fourth overall nationally with 9.3 tackles for loss. This, despite ASU not having a single elite or near-elite pass rusher on its roster. Instead, ASU's getting it done in large measure due to Todd Graham's relentless aggression and via a by-committee approach, particularly with sacking the quarterback. While no ASU player has more than Sam's 3.0 sacks, 13 Sun Devils have at least half a sack this season, which is a remarkable number. The distribution of tackles for loss is much less dispersed, with Fiso and Longino sitting at No. 1 and No. 2 in the Pac-12 with 10.5 and 9.5, respectively. How ASU does in this statistical area against Utah this week will be very telling, as the Utes protect their quarterback better than anyone in the league. 

7. After being sacked nine times by Texas A&M in the season opener, ASU's offensive line has settled in and done a much better job of protecting senior quarterback Mike Bercovici. In the last five games combined, ASU has allowed just seven sacks, a very accpetable rate of 1.4 per game. No opponent has had speed rushers anywhere close to the Aggies, but that's not the only reason for ASU's improvement. Senior William McGehee and junior Evan Goodman haven't been mentioned nearly as much by media and fans in recent weeks, and that's a sure sign of their progress. ASU needs that to continue this week so that it doesn't reflect poorly in contrast to Utah's offensive line, which has yielded just two sacks in five games, the best mark in the Pac-12. 

8. ASU's offensive line had a poor performance in the run game against a very blockable Colorado defensive front. The Buffaloes yielded 300-plus yards on the ground to Oregon a week earlier and more than 200 yards to Colorado State before that. Yet, through a large stretch of Saturday's game, ASU's leading rushers were tight end Kody Kohl and Bercovici. Sure, sophomore running back Demario Richard had another fumble and was held out for 13 straight plays after that before returning only to get injured and knocked out of the game, but fellow sophomore Kalen Ballage is a big and athletic runner who at halftime had five carries for 11 yards. There was just too much disruption at the point of attack, with ASU's three senior interior starters not winning the line of scrimmage. They've got to do better. 

9. After a masterful gameplan and play calling sucess against UCLA a week earlier, ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell led an offense that had 491 yards from scrimmage on just 71 plays for a 6.9 per play average. That's pretty good, but there were still some questionable decisions, including a higher-than-expected pass to run ratio coming out of the gate in the first half. Sure, ASU's offensive line wasn't playing that well in the run game, but a lot of it comes down to getting into a rhythm and imposing yourself on the opponent, in this case a team that's done quite poorly against the run. From a game management standpoint, the low percentage second and 7 pass attempt inside Colorado territory from Bercovici to senior receiver Devin Lucien made little sense, especially when followed by a run play on third and 7 and a subsequent punt. On ASU's final drive of the first half, Norvell called four pass plays out of five total plays before ASU punted, with three of those falling incomplete. The drive took just 1:22 and gave Colorado the ball back with 2:40 in the half and plenty of time to drive and score and get some momentum going into the half. If Norvell is looking at that situation from a head coach's perspective, he might see it differently, but that's also where Graham has to have influence. 

10. ASU's anemic crowd was yet again another indication that reducing the stadium capacity is the right call. Attendance was announced at 44,157 but it's hard to imagine there were more than 40,000 fans in attedance and possibly well below that. Students were on fall break so that's part of the reason for the crowd having much less energy but it doesn't help when the entire North Inferno is almost empty save the ASU band. It was about 5,000 empty seasons in and of itself in the lower bowl and the South Inferno was no more than a third full. As part of its student fee implementation ASU guaranteed the students something on the order of 13,000 lower bowl seats, but that decision is going to look very suspect if there are conference games that yield a turnout of only a few thousand students in the lower bowl. Overall, the rest of ASU's turnout and response to the game wasn't much better. 


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