Sharing the coveted No. 1 spot in the Pac-12 South with No. 21 Utah, Arizona State and Colorado will face off Saturday at Folsom Field in a game that could determine the odds-on favorite in the division.
Colorado, (4-2 overall, 2-1 in Pac-12) is much-improved from seasons past, after finishing last in the Pac-12 South for five consecutive seasons. This year, the Buffaloes are a highly-seasoned group, with multiple standouts on either side of the ball.
“They have a good offense,” ASU junior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said. “They’ve been working together for awhile now so they have that chemistry and they do what they do well. They are more aggressive up front and they have a very mobile quarterback. They got better receivers than they had so they are going to be a very good team and they are going to be motivated too. They are fired up to be great and do the best they can.”
Colorado has moved to more of a spread offense this season featuring four wide receiver sets under the guidance of head coach Mike MacIntrye, co-offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren and co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini.
Chiaverini is in his first-year with Colorado, after coaching at Texas Tech for the past two seasons.
“You can tell some of their plays, Air Raid guys are in, but you can tell that the head ball coach (MacIntyre) isn’t letting them go completely Air Raid,” ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said. “They are still going to line up with tight ends and do some inline stuff so they got a good mix of them.”
ASU junior college transfer Maurice Chandler said Colorado operates in a similar style to Cal and Texas Tech, but even so, ASU can use that to its advantage since it has faced multiple Air Raid teams through the first half of its season.
With Colorado being more of a spread team this season, Smallwood sees the advantages for ASU when it comes to bringing pressure on the quarterback.
“This is a team that is going to hold the ball more so it definitely gives us, it definitely puts pressure on us,” Smallwood said. “Not bad pressure, but it definitely motivates us to get to them. Knowing that they are going to try to put the ball in the air, they are going to hold the ball longer so have to put pressure on him (quarterback), rattle him. Got to take less pressure off our DBs.”
And while Smallwood is confident in his team’s ability to pressure Colorado’s quarterback, there is still a big question mark as to who the Buffaloes' starting quarterback will be on Saturday.
It will either be Colorado senior quarterback Sefo Liufau or freshman quarterback Steven Montez, who has started the last three games at quarterback for the Buffaloes. Liufau was the starter heading into the season, but he sprained his right ankle on Sept. 17 in Colorado’s 45-28 loss to Michigan and has been unable to play since.
“I know No. 13 (Liufau) from last year,” ASU sophomore defensive lineman Joseph Wicker said. “He’s a competitor and gets after it and he does a lot of boots, a lot of nakeds and stuff like that and he’ll throw picks if he is getting pressured and hit a lot I think.”
Since taking over quarterbacking duties in Colorado’s past three games, Montez is 73-of-116 with three interceptions and nine touchdowns in six games played.
“He (Montez) is tough,” Rushing said. “That kid is tough and he’s a competitor. He wants to get in there and lead them to victory. He’s doing a good job. Both of them are. I don’t know which of them we are going to see, but either way it’s going to be a great challenge.”
Liufau had to step in for Montez in Colorado’s game against USC last weekend when Montez went down late in the first half. However, Montez returned and started the second half.
Last season, Liufau started the first 11 games of the season for Colorado before suffering a Lisfranc injury at the end of the first quarter of Colorado’s 27-24 loss to USC on Nov.13. Liufau had surgery on Nov. 20, which ended his season.
“(Liufau) does a great job of operating,” Rushing said. “He’s completing 70 percent of his passes or something crazy. He’s a great operator with feet. He can move and extend plays. Both guys are capable guys that can hurt you.”
Despite the questions at quarterback, Colorado has a locked in group of talented wide receivers, led by junior wide receiver Devin Ross.
Rushing described the Colorado wide receivers as “fast, competitive ballplayers,” with three players recording 20 or more catches this season.
Chandler said Ross and junior wide receiver Shay Fields are probably going to be the two best receivers ASU is going to face all year.
“I’ve seen on film, they do a lot of slants, cross routes, screen, trips plays,” Wicker said. “They try to run the ball a bit and we are going to try to make it a one-dimensional game and stop the run and play great coverage, like we did last game.”
Ross leads the receiving corps with 32 catches for 412 yards and five touchdowns. Fields has 25 catches for 492 yards and five touchdowns and junior wide receiver Bryce Bobo has 27 catches for 331 yards and two touchdowns.
“Their No.1 thing is hitting bombs and hitting big plays with receivers who can really stretch the field vertically are as fast and explosive as anyone we have played,” Graham said.
Senior defensive back De'Chavon Hayes said the receiving corps does have a lot of speed and Fields specifically likes to run a lot of deep routes and posts, but as long as the secondary can prevent those shots from being converted, the Sun Devil defense will be in good shape.
“I got a lot of speed as well, so if they want to make it a footrace, I can race all day,” Hayes said.
Graham said he thinks Colorado does a “great job schematically” with trick plays and their emphasis on running the football and throwing to their tailback, running back Phillip Lindsay, out of the backfield.
“They run a lot of power read, inside zone,” Smallwood said. “The biggest thing for us is power read and quarterback power. Those are the two different plays that we haven’t seen this season yet. I mean, Utah runs it, so it’s going to be a challenge for us. They do it and they do it well.”
Through six games, Lindsay has 81 carries for 395 yards and six rushing touchdowns. He also has 17 catches for 196 yards and one receiving touchdown. The Buffaloes are No. 5 in rushing offense in the Pac-12, averaging 198.2 yards per game
“He (Lindsay) is a speedy guy,” junior linebacker D.J. Calhoun said. “He likes to get down and dirty, but I feel like we pop him a little bit he is going to slow down, start tiptoeing.”
Similar to the offense, Colorado’s defense is led by a group of veteran players across the field.
This experience has led to a consistent defensive performance through the first six games of the season for the Buffaloes and ASU running back Demario Richard said they look like a completely different team than in years past.
Colorado ranks No. 23 in the country in total defense, No. 2 in the Pac-12, allowing opponents to gain 331.8 yards per game and 4.81 yards per play.
“That group has been there since my freshman year so it’s like you got people there that is used to the system,” Richard said. “I don’t think they hired any new coaches. They are used to the system. They are farming, something like Iowa does. They bring in some people redshirt them and came in and got the job done. It’s a whole different Colorado team than last year, two years ago, my freshman year. I’m excited to play them. I got a couple friends on the team so they’ve been kind of talking. I’m excited. It’s going to be an epic battle.”
Led by a veteran group of players in the secondary, the Buffaloes are one of the best passing defenses in the Pac-12, allowing 185 passing yards per game.
Last season, the Buffaloes surrendered 218.2 passing yards per game, good for the second-best mark in the conference. It was a noticeable improvement under then-first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt compared to 2014, when the Buffaloes gave up 256.2 yards per game.
Colorado senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is one of the defensive standouts, leading the Buffaloes secondary in 2015 with 84 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
This season, Awuzie has recorded 27 tackles with two tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble.
“I think they are a group (secondary) that has executed and played hard and played well, which is why they’ve had success this season and we have to expect a real challenge when we get there, a team that is going to play its best and we have to play our best and we haven’t done that on the road yet,” ASU wide receivers coach Jay Norvell said.
ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said the Buffaloes defense was “very fundamentally sound” and praised their style of play. Colorado is No. 3 in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, only allowing opponents to score an average of 20.7 points per game.
“They play really hard,” Lindsey said. “You don’t see them out of position or busting coverages. From what I understand, most of those guys on defense have played now for three years and they are very comfortable playing in that system for that coach. I think it’s his second year for their defensive coordinator and their coach has been there for awhile. I just see them playing with a lot of confidence. Not making a lot of mistakes and self-inflicted mistakes. They make you earn it.”
The defense is led by Leavitt, who has transformed the defense from a 4-3 under former Colorado defensive coordinator Kent Baer to a base 3-4 defense. Still, ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said he expects the Buffaloes to come out in multiple fronts on Saturday.
“We have kind of seen every front now and every defense actually,” Kohl said. “A lot of teams like to change things up so we can’t assume that they are going to run what they show against us because no team does. Every team has changed on us. We are just going to play and work what we see, but we adjust on the move.”
A key example of defenses mixing up their coverages was during ASU’s 41-20 loss to USC on Oct. 1. After the game and in the following week, Graham said he knew the Trojans were going to attack on defense, but he didn’t think it would be to that extent and therefore, the team wasn’t fully prepared for the pressure.
On film, Colorado tends to pressure more on third downs rather than first or second, but Norvell said overall he sees the Buffaloes as “an aggressive defense.”
Colorado has 14 sacks, tied for No. 5 in the Pac-12 and has seven interceptions in six games with a return average of 12.7 yards.
“We are really going to have to protect the ball and we are going to have to be aggressive to make plays,” Norvell said. “We are going to have to do a great job in the run game and being physical and attacking the passing game.
“I’ve known their coordinator (Leavitt), I’ve known him for a long time, and I know what he’s all about and you’re not going to be given anything. If you’re not willing to go out and take it, you got the wrong mindset.”
Colorado senior inside linebacker Kenneth Olugbode leads the Colorado defense with 44 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and one fumble recovery.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound linebacker missed the Arizona and Arizona State games last season with an acute compartment syndrome injury to his right shin, which he suffered late in Colorado’s 41-24 loss to Oregon on Oct. 3. Last season, Olugbode had 64 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception and one fumble recovery.
“They got some big guys up front that play hard and play sound football,” ASU running backs coach John Simon said. “The biggest thing for us is to come out and protect the ball like we’ve been doing.”
Overall, Kohl is confident in his team’s ability to outmatch a Colorado team that is very similar in character and discipline to the Sun Devils.
“We hear that they are just like us,” Kohl said. “We hear that their discipline is the same and everything like that so we are pretty skeptical. We think they are a good team and everything, but they must be a really good if they are like us, because we think we are pretty awesome. So we are just coming out and playing more physical and everything like that.”