BOULDER, Colorado -- Arizona State got a reality chin-check on Saturday by a team that was healthier, more prepared, more physical, more disciplined, more balanced and flat-out better.
Yes, Colorado has won two games in the last three years in the Pac-12 South. Yes, the Sun Devils have historically owned the Buffaloes. Those things proved irrelevant on this night, in this game, and this season. This wasn't really a surprise to those who'd studied the Buffaloes closely throughout the season and also been able to closely follow ASU's injury situation in the last week. We expected the outcome to be what was, give or take.
Colorado is legitimately in the running for the Pac-12 South title this year and the Sun Devils weren't going to be able to hang in the race with a quarterback playing at far less than full strength on the road and multiple starting players on defense out or very limited.
The Buffaloes have a senior quarterback in Sefo Liufau who has 35 career starts and is one of the three best players at the position in program history in ball security. They have a good receiving corps and a very functional rushing offense. They are healthy and were playing at home against an ASU team that entered the game giving up a Pac-12-worst 6.6 yards per play. That number is going to only get worse after Saturday's game, as Colorado averaged 6.9 yards-per-play -- it was over 8.0 yards at the end of the third quarter -- and did so with terrific balance. The Buffaloes ran the ball for 315 of their 580 total yards. ASU coach Todd Graham said nobody has done that to the Sun Devils since he's been the head coach at the school.
What did he attribute it to? Well, "they blocked our butts," Graham said, while also adding that Colorado's newly installed tempo offense kept the Sun Devils on their heels and improperly aligned. The missed tackles that have been a staple of the ASU defense this year and last? They were very apparent again in this game. Graham even said that the altitude was a factor for some of the team's players and we saw several instances of defensive players loafing and unable to catch their breath, including star senior linebacker Salamo Fiso. That's the first time Graham has said that about his team in five years.
Colorado with 315 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 52 attempts for a 6.1 yards-per-carry average? Yep, that happened. And the longest of those runs was probably the one that put the game out of reach for the Sun Devils, coming on just the first play from scrimmage in the second half. Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay -- by no means a big play threat -- took a hand off from Liufau and went 75 yards for a touchdown to make it a 30-10 lead.
Of course, Liufau also did damage in other ways. He completed his first nine passes of the game and got the Buffaloes into a great early rhythm. He extended plays with his feet in ways that allowed for big plays in the passing game, including a 66-yard reception by Bryce Bobo. Initially, the coverage was good, but as Liufau evaded the pocket and a potential sack by ASU defensive tackle George Lea, Bobo broke off his route and lost separation from senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes and got behind the defense.
Liufau also had 38 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown. He scrambled when he needed to and converted some key third down opportunities with his legs. It was such a contrast between that and ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, who was clearly playing at far less than full strength on a left ankle he sprained two weeks ago against USC. Wilkins' default setting is to run when pressured, and ASU's best use of him is to have plays with designed run options for him built in. But he didn't carry the ball by design even once in this game, and only a few times in total when he was forced to. That's not a winning recipe against a good defense, but neither is playing a true freshman quarterback for the first time -- be it Dillon Sterling-Cole or Jack Smith -- who isn't ready to be effective whatsoever, much less on the road in this type of a game.
ASU's coaches were facing a Sophie's Choice situation in this game at quarterback. Playing Wilkins, even at 60 or 70 percent health may have given the team a better chance to win than throwing Sterling-Cole out there and ruining his confidence. Or maybe not. But it was a lose-lose proposition either way, really. In Sterling-Cole, the Sun Devils have a good quarterback prospect, but prospect is the operative word. He wasn't at ASU in the spring, was the fourth-string quarter at the outset of preseason camp, and probably only has a superficial handle on the ASU offense.
It's going to be difficult for any team to have success with its true freshman fourth string quarterback in this type of game. But it was going to be very limited with Wilkins, and especially if it couldn't run the ball successfully; and in this game, ASU definitely couldn't run the ball successfully. Junior Kalen Ballage had 14 rushing yards on seven carries and was wholly ineffective. Junior Demario Richard had 59 yards rushing on 10 carries, but 37 of those yards came on one play, a Sparky formation run around the edge.
If there was a gripe to be had here, it's that ASU didn't go to the Sparky formation with Richard as the ball carrier more after that 37 yard play. Its coaches should have at least done that. But when a good opponent knows you're going to have to run the ball and yet not be able to do so with your quarterback, and also has good defensive backs, the game is going to be hard going. This one proved to be impossible. There's really only so many misdirection and trick plays you can try to execute, and while a case could be made that ASU didn't do enough, there wasn't going to be any magic elixir for offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey in this one.
Ultimately, you have to physically beat a team to run the ball and ASU didn't do that or even come close. Right out of the gate it went to a double tight end set and had no success on first down. Later it tried the same thing, with the same result. ASU ran just 63 plays and averaged only 3.2 yards-per-play. Maybe it should have run the ball even more and tried to make the game one of even fewer possessions, but when you can only muster 50 rushing yards on 28 carries, you're in a world of trouble, especially when you can't protect your injured quarterback.
Part of ASU's challenge was how it failed to keep a clean pocket for Wilkins even when it had two tight ends in the game. Senior Kody Kohl gave up two sacks to Colorado outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert, and the Sun Devils yielded five sacks and six quarterback hurries overall. Wilkins was a sitting duck and the Buffaloes plucked just about every feather. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt creatively dialed up some pressures, including delay blitzes, that the Sun Devils had no answer for.
If Colorado didn't muff two punts that ASU recovered -- one at the 32 and one at the 31 -- inside scoring range, this game likely would have been even more lopsided. ASU had 10 of its 16 points in the game off those turnovers, and other than that had one 52 yard drive and that was it.
The game would have also clearly been more lopsided if not for the special teams disparity between ASU and Colorado. The Sun Devils easily won the special teams battle on the night even though it lost the war because of its poor play on offense and defense. Senior Matt Haack punted 10 times for a remarkable 52.1 yard average with six 50-plus yard punts and a long of 76 yards.
It's hard to believe, but Haack was outdone by ASU senior kicker Zane Gonzalez, who tied an NCAA record with three 50-plus yard field goals in the game. Gonzalez also broke the ASU record with a 59-yard field goal, and is now FBS all-time leader in points with 468. He's also now set a record for most consecutive games with a point in ASU history.
How's this game look on the scoreboard if not for those two Colorado muffed punts and Gonzalez giving ASU nine of its 16 points on field goals of longer than 50 yards?
Colorado showed the value of veteran experience in this game in a way that clearly contrast with ASU, other than on the special teams units in which Haack and Gonzalez reside as, not coincidentally, some of the most experienced players at their positions in college football.
The Sun Devils' 5-1 start to the season was somewhat beguiling. They were not a very good football team at the midway point of the season when looking at advanced analytics, and a clear sign of this was how they were favored to lose in four or five -- depending on the computer modeling -- of their final six games of the regular season. It's still going to be a very good season if they can somehow win three of their last five, including home games against Washington State and Utah. But even if they only win two of those five, it's probably a reasonable fulfillment of what the Sun Devils could have reasonably expected for their season, particularly in light of the injury challenges they've dealt with at key positions.