Colorado cruises past ASU in pivotal Pac-12 South showdown

Colorado and Arizona State were tasked with keeping pace with Utah in the Pac-12 South Saturday, and it was the Buffaloes who emerged with a victory to improve to 3-1 in conference play.

BOULDER, Colorado--With injuries at the quarterback position clouding matters for Arizona State and Colorado, neither team announced who its starting signal-caller would be until the moments prior to kickoff at Folsom Field Saturday night.

It didn't take long to realize that one team's quarterback was ready to play, and one team's was not in the Buffaloes' 40-16 dismantling of the Sun Devils. 

Colorado senior Sefo Liufau missed three consecutive starts due to an ankle injury suffered on Sept. 17, but nearly a month later, Liufau came out hot against ASU, completing his first nine passes and finishing 22-for-30 for 257 yards on the night.

"You don't know how long it's going to be," Liufau said in reference to his ankle injury. "It was tough and frustrating and I knew that there were people capable of stepping up and I knew that our team was better than teams past. We could handle business and put points on the board."

ASU sophomore Manny Wilkins missed just one start after suffering a high ankle sprain in the first half of the Sun Devils' 41-20 loss to USC on Oct. 1, and Wilkins clearly played through pain throughout a rough offensive night.

"Obviously it gave us the best chance to have a chance to be competitive and he felt like he could go and protect himself," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "Obviously he was not 100 percent. He might have been 90, 85 something like that, I don't know, but that hurt us obviously."

Wilkins finished 13-for-35 for 149 yards, and the normally mobile signal-caller was limited to an oft-collapsing pocket against a fundamentally sound Colorado defense.

In a battle for first place in the Pac-12 South between a pair of teams sitting at 2-1 in conference play, the Buffaloes physically dominated the Sun Devils from the get-go, setting the tempo on a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive on the game's opening series.

The win pushed the Buffaloes to 5-2 overall and helped them keep pace with the Utah Utes, who also improved to 3-1 in Pac-12 play with a 19-14 win over Oregon State Saturday. The Buffaloes' third conference victory eclipsed the program's Pac-12 wins from the past three seasons combined, as MacIntyre led Colorado to just two conference wins between 2013 and 2015.

"This is the first team with a winning record we've beat this year," MacIntyre said. "They perennially have beat us bad. We had them at home, the kids have been hearing all week, this is the Pac-12 South, we're leading, you kind of control your own destiny so all that pressure our young men have not ever been under before. So I thought tonight was a breakthrough win."

The defeat marked just the second loss of the season for a 5-2 Sun Devils' team, but raised serious concerns about ASU's depth moving forward and proved costly in that both Colorado and USC now hold tie-breakers over ASU in a closely contested Pac-12 South race.

The 8.1 yards per play the Buffaloes averaged on their opening series turned out to foreshadow the type of night Colorado's offense enjoyed, as Liufau's offense averaged more than 8.5 yards per play until the start of the fourth quarter.

"You have to give credit to Colorado for having a great plan," junior safety Marcus Ball said. "You know obviously one thing that you saw out there is that we did a poor job stopping the run. "You have to stop the run to win ball games. We pride ourselves here at Arizona State being plus four in the takeaway charts and tonight we didn't get that done. Like I said, they ran the ball on us and took the W home."

An ASU defense that came into Saturday's matchup allowing a Pac-12 best 89.3 rushing yards per game surrendered as many yards in the first quarter, as Buffaloes' junior running back Phillip Lindsay ran for a game-high 219 yards on 26 carries. Colorado finished the night with 580 total yards and 315 rushing yards, the most rushing yards the Sun Devils have allowed in a game to this point this season.

"My hat goes off to them because they ran the ball on us unlike anybody has ran it I think the whole time I've been at Arizona State," Graham said. "Their energy of their team was just, I don't know if it was we came out real flat energy-wise, but you've got to give them all the credit. There's no excuses, they kicked our tail."

If not for a remarkable special teams effort from ASU, the final score could have looked worse. 

In the first quarter, Buffaloes' sophomore punt returner Jay MacIntyre muffed a Matt Haack punt, which set up an ASU touchdown drive that began at the Colorado 31-yard line. 

Haack finished the night with 10 punts for an average of 52.1 yards, and booted a career-long 76-yard punt at the end of the first half. 

Fellow senior Zane Gonzalez was responsible for 10 of the Sun Devils' 16 points, as he tied an NCAA single-game record with three 50-plus yard field goals and extended his NCAA career record to 92 field goals made. Gonzalez broke the ASU career record for consecutive games with a point, surpassing the previous mark of 45 games set by Luis Zendejas. 

Gonzalez's 59-yard field goal in the fourth quarter broke the ASU record for the program's longest field goal by four full yards, and marked the second longest field goal in Folsom Field history. 

Aside from an impressive output on special teams, though, ASU was considerably outplayed by Colorado on offense, defense and especially at the line of scrimmage. 

An ASU rushing attack that entered Saturday sixth in the Pac-12 with an average of more than 180 yards per game ended the first quarter with negative one rushing yards, and culminated the night with just 199 total yards.

"They rushed for over 300 yards tonight and we rushed for 50, that's pretty much the story," Graham said.

Even in a game in which ASU knew it needed to bolster its protection because of the limitations Wilkins faced, the Sun Devils' quarterback was under duress throughout the night. Colorado senior Jimmie Gilbert tortured Wilkins in the first half, twice beating senior tight end Kody Kohl at the line of scrimmage for a pair of sacks including one in which he forced a fumble ASU ultimately recovered. 

"We just wanted to make a statement that when you play us you're going to get hit, but at the same time, who is left standing at the end is going to be the victor," Gilbert said. "We felt like today we had to dominate and stop the run and get to the quarterback as many times as possible."

The Buffaloes finished with five sacks, but delivered a handful of crushing blows to Wilkins including one by junior linebacker Addison Gillam on a third quarter interception. 

"They did a good job of scheming us and popping backers here and there," Wilkins said. "We just got in their coverage. At the end of the day, we just got to make more plays than the other team to win football games. Tonight we didn't do that."

The turnover was the first of the night for ASU, and extended Colorado's streak of consecutive games forcing a turnover to 20, which leads all FBS programs. 

Aside from having their offensive capabilities limited by Wilkins' ankle, the Sun Devils were plagued by a handful of defensive injuries against the Buffaloes. Early in the third quarter, the Sun Devils lost sophomore safety Armand Perry to an apparent lower body injury, which left ASU without one of its key communicators in the secondary.

In the first half, junior cornerback Maurice Chandler left the game with an injury and was replaced by senior De'Chavon Hayes, who allowed a 66-yard catch by Buffaloes' junior Bryce Bobo on a coverage bust when Hayes came up in pursuit of a scrambling Liufau.

The 66-yard gain was Colorado's second-longest play of the night, as the biggest play came on a 75-yard third quarter touchdown run from Lindsey that pushed the Buffaloes' advantage to three scores. 

The aforementioned plays became the seventh and eighth plays of 60 yards or more the Sun Devils have surrendered this season, which marks the most by any team in the FBS. 

ASU returns to Sun Devil Stadium next Saturday for a matchup with a Washington State squad featuring an Air Raid offense that leads the Pac-12 with an average of 530.6 yards per game and entered the weekend second nationally in passing offense, averaging 381.4 yards per game. 

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