Colorado offensive scheme
Colorado lost one of the top offensive players in the Pac-12 from last season with the departure of wide receiver Nelson Spruce, but hasn't been slowed at all in 2016.
Actually, the Buffaloes have accelerated, literally.
With the addition of former Texas Tech assistant Darrin Chiaverini as co-offensive coordinator, the Buffaloes have moved to an up-tempo, no huddle style of offense. They're playing more snaps, averaging more yards per play, and scoring more points.
Co-offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren is still calling the plays from the press box during games, but the Buffaloes are much less pro-style than they've been in the past, and Chiaverini's fingerprints are all over the scheme in the form of Air Raid passing concepts.
It was as good a year as any for the Buffaloes to make the switch because they have a senior quarterback, Sefo Liufau, who has 35 career starts and is the most functionally sound player at the position in the Pac-12 South. They also have a couple experienced receivers who could play for anyone in the league, all-league candidates Shay Fields and Devin Ross, who rank among the top six in the league in receiving yards per game.
Last year the Buffaloes averaged 24.6 points, 5.1 yards-per-play, 3.7 yards-per-carry and 6.7 yards-per-pass. Through the midway point this season they're averaging 38.8 points, 6.2 yards-per-play, 4.2 yards-per-rush and 9.0 yards-per-pass.
Not surprisingly, they're winning more than last year. In fact, the Pac-12 South's perennial doormat has already won as many conference games this season (2-1) as it did in the first three years total under head coach Mike MacIntyre (2-25). If the Buffaloes can win three more Pac-12 games this season, they will equal their entire number of league wins since joining the conference in 2011.
Colorado has very good offensive balance, with a run game that is averaging 198.2 yards-per-game, and a passing attack averaging 306.3 yards-per-game. There has been an increased level of productivity in the passing game, with the Buffaloes third in completion percentage (66.2 percent), second in pass efficiency, and yet also significantly increasing its yards-per-completion. They're very good at drive sustainment, ball security, and red zone success rate.
Liufau's experience is a key factor in all of this offensive improvement by the Buffaloes, but even with redshirt freshman Steven Montez at quarterback, the offense has done reasonably well. It's a sure sign of the scheme's functionality as well as the execution level of players throughout the unit.
Aggressive toss sweeps are a big element of the run game with returning junior starter Philip Lindsay. That's the most creative way Colorado runs the ball to the perimeter because Lindsay is quicker than fast and by no means a home run threat. There's also a lot of inside zone and power elements, including a healthy portion of designed runs for the quarterback. Colorado loves to run quarterback power with Liufau carrying the ball behind a pulling guard, and even behind Lindsay as a lead blocker. There's also a fair amount of quarterback draw that often is designed to go through the A-gap.
Colorado stresses the field laterally not just through the toss sweep play but also a lot of run replacements. Lindsay is one of the biggest passing game targets ASU's faced to this point in the season as a running back, with a lot of it being swings to the flat. Additionally, the Buffaloes use a decent amount of perimeter bubble screens, particularly out of 3x1 sets to the No. 3 receiver bleeding to the flat with others blocking ahead.
The passing game includes quite a few big play shots with seven man protections, primarily to junior Shay Fields on the perimeter. He's one of the best big concept route runners in the Pac-12 and will beat defenses on an array of go-routes, deep posts and fades, especially when he gets a clean release at the line of scrimmage.
Undersized junior wideout Devin Ross is the most frequent target in run replacement action and the Buffaloes love to get to the ball to him in a wide variety of creative ways. Most of his action comes from the slot, and there's a lot of quick-action rub routes, bubble passes to the flat, and run-pass option quick slants.
Colorado does its share of the bubble-and-go concepts designed to try to catch a defender sleeping in a way that allows a receiver to slip past the defensive backs. It enhance this by having the decoy receiver in the flat throw his arms up as part of the play fake.
The biggest challenge for ASU though may be downfield scissors routes that have to be communicated as far as the assignments, and the ultra-shallow underneath crossing routes that Colorado runs extremely well, and ASU has struggled to defend at the linebacker level. Ross and fellow slot receiver Bryce Bobo are big targets in this facet of the offense. ASU can have busts in either of these concepts.
At the goal line, Colorado has no hesitation to get under center even though it's become much more of a shotgun oriented team overall. Not only will they align in heavier sets, they'll do so with all 11 players inside the tackle box and three players forming a half-circle behind the quarterback to push him into the end zone, with all 10 players other than the quarterback operating out of a four-point stance to win the leverage battle.
Colorado offensive players
QB Sefo Liufau (No. 13) -- An extremely rare four-year starter at quarterback, Liufau has played in 35 games in his Colorado career. The 6-foot-5, 230 pounder is re-writing the record book at the school, already the leading passer in Colorado history. Liufau suffered a Lisfranc injury last November but came back to start the opener this season and showed good mobility. He suffered an ankle sprain a few weeks ago and that's been limiting and led to his backup, redshirt freshman Steven Montez getting a couple starts. It appears that Liufau will likely start against ASU, but it's a question as to whether he'll have his normal mobility. That's particularly important because Colorado uses a lot of designed quarterback runs, including draws and even quarterback power where he carries the ball behind running back Philip Lindsay and/or one of the offensive guards, especially right guard Tim Lynott pulling from right to left. Liufau had some back issues in his past that led to better accuracy and more frequent attempts throwing to his right rather than to his left, but he's completed a higher percentage of throws than anyone in school history. He's very accurate down the field, and gets the ball quickly an well located on the run-pass option throws that are prevalent in the Colorado scheme. He also throws interceptions at a very low rate, less than 1.5% of his throws in the last year and a half.
QB Steven Montez (No. 12) -- Liufau's backup, Montez has looked good for a redshirt freshman. The two players are very similar in terms of stature, style and even physical appearance and it seems like Montez will be ready to pick up where Liufau is leaving off after this season. With Liufau dealing with an ankle injury, Montez started the last two games and completed 25 of 40 passes for 197 yards, with one touchdown and one interception last week in a 21-17 loss to USC. There are times when he's a bit tentative with his throws, or unaware of zone defenders, which is commonplace for young quarterbacks making the transition to college.
RB Philip Lindsay (No. 23) -- A do-everything junior running back, Lindsay's strengths are his versatility, his blend of skill and instinct, and tenacious approach to the game. He's neither big (5-foot-8) nor especially athletic among Pac-12 players at the position, but Lindsay is quite a capable player. He's a very good blocker, a very good receiver, and a very functional running back who fulfills his role quite well, including a physical capability between the tackles. Last year he led Colorado with 653 yards rushing and a 4.7 average per carry. This year he's up to 4.9 yards per carry, and already has six rushing touchdowns. Colorado likes to get the ball to Lindsay on aggressive toss sweeps, and throws the ball a lot to him in a variety of screens, from the flat post-motion to inside the tackle box.
WR Devin Ross (No. 2) -- Nobody on the Colorado roster has benefited more from the team's incorporation of extensive Air Raid concepts in its passing game this season than Ross. An 'H' position receiver who most commonly aligns in the slot, Ross gets targeted on a very heavy dose of a variety of run-pass option concepts. He's frequently targeted on rub route concepts working parallel to the line of scrimmage, quick slants off play action read zone, and bubble screens into the flat from his No 3 position on trips to the field. Ross is also a vertical target, particularly out of 2x2 sets when the No. 1 receiver throws his hands up to sell a bubble screen as Ross shows block from the No. 2 spot only to release down field. Several times this year he's taken the ball on jet sweeps or end arounds. Colorado is very creative and determined about getting the ball to Ross. He had 25 catches last year in 13 games with six starts. This year as a junior he's already caught 32 passes for 412 yards and is tied for the team-high with five receiving touchdowns.
WR Shay Fields (No. 1) -- One of the better big-play targets ASU will face this season, Fields has terrific open field route running and very good speed. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Fields takes advantage of defenses that aren't physical with him at the line of scrimmage. He's far and away the team's leader in yards-per-reception among players with five or more catches, at 19.7 yards. He's extremely proficient at deep fades, go routes and posts, and has a double move capability. Colorado likes to align him into the boundary and let it fly, but Fields will also be a target on motioning swing screens and catching slants between zone levels. He was second on the team with 43 catches last year and already has 25 receptions in 2016 and is tied for the team-lead with five receiving touchdowns.
WR Bryce Bobo (No. 4) -- A 6-foot-2, 190 pound junior, Bobo has moved into a major role for the Buffaloes this season. He'll align outside or inside. Colorado likes to get him the football on extremely shallow crossing routes that are essentially at the line of scrimmage and underneath an opponent's linebackers. Whether in man or zone, Bobo can get unattached from the defense in these types of plays and ASU's already shown a tendency to be challenged by such aggressive routes working from one side of the field to another. Colorado has also used Bobo as a passer on a trick play that went for a 67 yard touchdown against USC.
Colorado offensive line -- On both sides of the football, line play isn't the strength of the Buffaloes, but it shouldn't be considered a real weakness, either. On offense, center Alex Kelley (No. 74) has 30-plus career starts and is a stabilizing force as a senior. Kelley, 6-foot-2, 310 pounds, is probably the most well rounded of the team's linemen from a skill standpoint and graded very high against ASU last year, at 97.1 percent. He's the most experienced in the unit but junior left guard Gerrard Kough (No. 68) is a second-year starter, junior Jeromy Irwin (No. 76) started in 2014 at left tackle and is back there this season after suffering an ACL injury in 2015, and junior Sam Kronshage (No. 71) has been a part-time starter since last year. The only truly new starter is right guard Tim Lynott (No. 46), a redshirt freshman right guard, but someone who is already a good player (and someone whom ASU offered a scholarship to in high school). If there's a limitation here, it's probably how Colorado handles power against its offensive tackles both from a protection standpoint and also in its inside run game.
ASU defense against Colorado offense
The underpinning strategy doesn't really change for the Sun Devils from game-to-game. They'll try to jam up the Colorado run game on early downs, keep the Buffaloes off schedule and then bring pressure on third downs in order to try to induce Liufau (or Montez) into turnovers. One part of that (success against the run) will be easier than the other (inducing Liufau mistakes) because the quarterback hasn't thrown an interception this season and only does so about once every 2.5 games over the last season-and-a-half.
Ultimately, it may come down to how much pressure ASU has to bring on early downs in order to maintain its status as the best run defense in the Pac-12, and whether that yields too many big play opportunities with its nationally-worst passing defense.
Against USC and UCLA, ASU didn't give up passes behind its secondary, but allowed an alarmingly high yards after the catch. Tackling in space has been a challenge for ASU, and that's rough because it is a defense that relies on more solo tackles than just about every other defense in the country due to how much it pressures in front of it. ASU needs to have a very good tackling performance in this game, which could be tougher with sophomore safety Armand Perry and sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr limited this week in practice due to injuries.
Additionally, the Sun Devils are going to have to put forth better assignment soundness and playmaking at the linebacker level when facing underneath passes and in particular the crossing routes that Colorado likes to use, including on third down and long. If ASU can do well against the run on early downs, be assignment sound on quick throws, tackle well in space, and not get beaten behind its secondary, it will stay in the game.
Colorado defensive scheme
A defensive guru by trade, Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre cut his teeth coaching in the secondary at the NFL level for the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets in the 2000s before becoming Duke's defensive coordinator in 2008-09, and the San Jose State head coach in 2010.
With the Spartans, MacIntyre quickly turned around the program in a remarkable three-year stretch. They went 1-12 (0-8 in the Western Athletic Conference) in his first year, 2010, and were 10-2 (5-1) in his final season at the school in 2012.
MacIntyre's defense at Colorado is now starting to fire on all cylinders and a big factor has been the addition of coordinator Jim Leavitt, who joined the program prior to the 2015 season. A head coach for 13 season at South Florida from 1997-2009 -- where he oversaw the program's transition to FBS and had an overall record of 95-57 with bowl appearances in each of his five seasons as part of the Big East conference -- Leavitt's background is with linebackers.
MacIntyre and Leavitt have spent the last couple years grooming a defense with a bunch of young players who learned through experience and took a huge number of losses in the process. But now they're very experienced, and also don't lack talent whatsoever. Almost every player who starts or sees regular action is a junior or senior, and most are multi-year starters.
With a talented and mature secondary that is the strength of the team, Leavitt has the luxury of being more creative than a lot of his peers in the league. Leavitt also has the mind to do so effectively. He coached linebackers with the San Francisco 49ers under then-coach Jim Harbaugh from 2011-14, when the unit was great.
The Buffaloes do a lot of NFL type things structurally with their defense. They typically play with three down linemen and four linebackers with their base look, and use their 3-point players as more containment and read defenders than gap penetrators. They'll move their outside linebackers to different alignments and depths on base downs depending on formation. They'll play their outside linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties on either side of the field and in a variety of applications, much less rigidly than most FBS teams in this regard.
It is a scheme designed to allow the inside linebackers to make a lot of tackles, and so it's no surprise that the two starters at those positions, are atop the team's statistical leaders in that regard. On base downs, the Buffaloes don't bring a lot of blitzes, and instead elect to try to load up the box and prevent big gains between the tackles. They tend to be successful in that regard, but out of the three down scheme they have been susceptible to teams running on the edge of the field and outflanking them to access the perimeter.
Where Colorado is most creative is how it uses its secondary and the ways in which it pressures. They'll show a lot of difference blitzes and back out of it, or still blitz, but with players who weren't showing it while those players who decoyed are dropping to where they can possibly take advantage of a quarterback error. The Buffaloes do a good job under Leavitt of overloading the 'B' gap with a linebacker and safety behind it. They also maximize their best player, senior Chidobe Awuzie by bringing him to the nickel slot position on third downs, a position from which he often blitzes.
Colorado plays a wide variety of coverages, deceives quarterbacks by showing an open middle of the field pre-snap before rotating a safety back to a route threat from the opposite side of the field's slot. That can really play tricks on the pre-snap reads of young quarterbacks. Overall, there are very few coverage busts, high-quality play across the secondary, and a willingness to move the chess pieces all over the board in a way that can keep an offense unbalanced.
In addition to their struggles with perimeter runs, the Buffaloes haven't shown an ability to handle routes by tight ends that work across the field very well. It's not a big staple of the ASU offense, but route concepts that try to stress the Colorado field side linebacker are a good idea.
Colorado defensive players
DB Chidobe Awuzie (No. 4) -- One of the top defensive players in the Pac-12, Awuzie earned second-team all-conference honors last season as a junior. The 6-foot-0, 205-pounder is among the national leaders in career sacks by a defensive back, and had a team-high 13 tackles for loss last season. It was the first time any defensive back at Colorado had led the team in the category in history. Awuzie is an extremely physical and technically sound cornerback. He fights players from releasing off the line of scrimmage in the direction he doesn't want them to go. He frequently shifts to the slot on third down, where he is a violent blitzer, and also is tremendously explosive and quick-reacting into the backfield against the run. But he's also very sound in coverage and gets in position to make a lot of deflections and even some interceptions of the football. He'll lock up receivers on the perimeter on base downs, and menace quarterbacks and running backs on third down. Awuzie doesn't have great speed in the open field, so re-gaining phase against receivers who beat him early in routes is a potential limitation. But he rarely allows it to happen. He's one of the best defensive players ASU will face this season.
LB Kenneth Olugbode (No. 31) -- Undersized but athletic, Olugbode is in his third season as a starter at the boundary inside linebacker position, which Colorado calls its 'Jack' position. He's only 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, but plays with great range. He runs like a defensive back even though he plays one of the two inside linebacker spots in the Buffaloes base 3-4 defense. Olugbode is quite physical and proficient against the run despite being light for the position, which is a bit surprising because his physical stature is more like a bigger safety. Colorado uses him extensively as a blitzer, often pressuring him along with another player through the 'B' gap on pops immediately at the snap. A very instinctive player with a lot of experience, Olugbode is well served by his play anticipation, but it's also something that can be used against him as he'll flow to misdirection in a way that can at times be taken advantage of -- just not often.
LB Rick Gamboa (No. 32) -- On a defense that starts almost exclusively veteran juniors and seniors who are returning starters, Gamboa is an exception -- sort of. Gamboa is only a sophomore, but the 6-foot-0, 230-pounder did start 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman and wound up leading the team with 96 tackles. He earns his keep as a run stopper between the tackles, and is a fine player in that capacity, aligning to the field side. But Gamboa hasn't picked up underneath receivers very well in man or zone calls and can be targeted by opponents in this regard. It's something ASU should want to try to test on Saturday. He's also not at his best when having to get width on reps to the far sideline in stretch run concepts or run replacement type screens.
LB Jimmie Gilbert (No. 98) -- A jumbo athlete at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Gilbert led Colorado with six sacks last season while playing primarily as a sub-package third down player. As a senior in 2016, Gilbert's role has expanded to being an every down player and he's on pace to be among the Pac-12 leaders in sacks. He already has 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Gilbert is an edge contain defender who aligns on either the field or boundary side, and is capable at chasing down plays from the backside. Gilbert is at his best as a pass rusher from the boundary in a 2-point stance who bends the edge on third downs. He plays very high against the run and teams have had some success running at him, which is something we'll probably see ASU try to do Saturday.
DB Alfolabi Laguda (No. 1) -- One of the least experienced but most versatile players on the Colorado defense, the 6-foot-1, 205 pound junior played as a reserve last year out of junior college but is has become a starter in 2016. He had his best career game last week against USC with 11 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble return, and is currently third on the team with 33 tackles. Laguda is moved around a fair amount in the scheme, shifting from single high safety to a boundary/strong alignment, to nickel cornerback.
DB Tedric Thompson (No. 9) -- Colorado's best and most relied on coverage safety, Thompson has very good range and is often put into demanding situations by Colorado because how how much he is trusted. The Buffaloes will played disguised coverages in which Thompson appears to be in the box or heavily aligned to one side of the field only to have him chase back to the deep middle third when routes challenge the area from the other side of the field. Quarterbacks have a difficult time recognizing this type of coverage at this level of football and are prone to throwing the ball into double coverage Thompson, a 6-foot-1, 205 pound senior, leads Colorado with two interceptions and has five passes defended. Colorado will also use him in man coverage when Awuzie blitzes, and at times will run Thompson up into the 'B' gap on a safety blitz. He's not an especially physical player, but is capable of making impactful tackles.
DB Ahkello Witherspoon (No. 23) -- A very good senior cover cornerback who has steadily improved out of the junior college ranks, Witherspoon started eight games last season with mixed results but is increasingly more technically sound. He's very long, at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, and at his best when he's working in man coverage down the field. Opponents haven't been able to target Witherspoon much in the passing game, and when they have he's been just as likely to get his hands on the ball as the opposing receiver. He has nine passes defended this year and only eight tackles. Witherspoon is not a physical player closer to the line of scrimmage, and has to be beaten with violence by receivers immediately post-snap. He's also not good against the run and doesn't want to have to make physical tackles.
DT Josh Tupou (No. 58) -- A 6-foot-3, 325 pound senior nose tackle, Tupou has 35-plus starts in his career and one of the most experienced players in the Pac-12. Colorado plays a lot of three down linemen defense and Tupou is responsible for controlling the A-gap and preventing run plays from working on either side of him. He's strong and stout, presses off of centers well and doesn't yield much ground. Tupou isn't a high volume tackler and not going to get a lot of tackles for loss or sacks, but that's not on the Buffaloes' agenda. Still, he has 24 tackles including 2.5 for loss, and is able to power through and get a coverage pressure here and there.
ASU offense against Colorado defense
Whether sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins plays or not, the Sun Devils are going to be more limited than normal at the most important position on the field. Wilkins will absolutely not have anywhere near his normal level of mobility, which is what he relies on as a default mechanism. Whether it's Wilkins on the field or true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole in his first career start, ASU is going to have to do everything in its power to make the game easy on its quarterback.
How to do this? Obviously it starts with a successful run game. Last year when these two teams played in Tempe, ASU had 231 net rushing yards on 40 attempts. A 63-yard run by D.J. Foster certainly helped boost the yards-per-carry average, but ASU was dedicated to its rushing attack and had success. That's going to have to happen again, and probably to an equivalent degree, even though this year's game is in Boulder, against almost entirely the same defense and a coordinator who has transitioned from year one to year two. So it's going to be tougher.
Of course, ASU will also have to protect Wilkins or Sterling-Cole. They'll probably try to increase their odds of doing this successfully by incorporating an even heavier dose of quick-hitting run replacement plays, especially the run-pass-options that result in quick slants and perimeter screens. The more Wilkins or Sterling-Cole has to hold the football, the greater the odds of Colorado impacting the quarterback and that simply can't happen to Wilkins because he's already injured, or Sterling-Cole, because he's likely to make mistakes.
The Sun Devils would be well advised to try to take the air out of the football in an effort to play a game with fewer plays and possessions. A lot more runs and run replacements on first and second down, more of a willingness to throw the ball away, play field position, trust the team's strong special teams. Targeting the tight end more in the quick passing game, and all routes working underneath and across the field could also work well here.
Colorado special teams
The Buffaloes have a punt team that has struggled at times this year. They had a traditional style punt blocked at Michigan early in the game when the Wolverines got four defenders to the protection level and two through it. After that, Colorado went to a rugby style approach, and its punter kicked the ball only about three feet off the ground and into the back of one of its linemen. As a result, their punt average is far and away the worst in the league at 30.6 net yards.
Colorado also ranks 11th in the league in kickoff coverage. So this is an opponent that can be at a disadvantage in a lower scoring, position-based game. The team does have a pretty solid kicker and average or better return capability on kickoffs -- which likely won't matter in Colorado against Zane Gonzalez -- and on punts.
Even if ASU had a healthy Wilkins, Orr, Perry and junior linebacker Christian Sam, this would be a slight Colorado lean in my forecast with the game in Boulder. Colorado doesn't have better line play than ASU, but is equal or better everywhere else on the field except running back and inside linebacker, and more experienced overall. It has savvy, veteran quarterback play, very good receivers, and a secondary that might be the best in the Pac-12 South. It has fewer assignment errors and just as much offensive balance.
The Colorado strengths against the ASU weaknesses are a bad matchup for ASU on the road, particularly with the Sun Devils reeling due to injuries. ASU is going to need its best rushing attack of the season to win, while at the same time avoiding giving up anywhere near its 404.3 yards-per-game passing defense. That's more possible with a healthy Orr and Perry, but I don't see it taking place without them at full strength.
This game could get more lopsided if ASU coach Todd Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson decide they need to bring everything and the kitchen sink at Liufau (or Montez) when trailing in order to help make things easier on the offense. It could get away from the Sun Devils if they don't have extreme coaching discipline and adherence to a style that gives them the best chance at keeping it close through the end. My prediction is Colorado wins, 38-13.