BOULDER, Colorado--During pregame warmups Saturday night, Arizona State's defensive backs were being chided by a Colorado fan exclaiming, "It's pretty hard to breathe in this elevation, boys." The Sun Devils weren't buying it.
After suffering a 40-16 loss at the hands of the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field, Sun Devils' head coach Todd Graham thought the fan had a point.
"Their tempo was fast, our guys struggled getting lined up," Graham said. "We've been here before with the altitude. We had some issues with the altitude, some guys had some issues there. That's part of it. And they just blocked our butt."
The Buffaloes raced down the field on the opening series of the game on a 10-play, 81-yard scoring drive that lasted fewer than three minutes. Against a Sun Devils' defense that surrendered an average of 89.3 rushing yards per game through its first five contests, Colorado picked up 60 rushing yards on its opening series, foreshadowing ASU's struggles in the same manner the Buffaloes' fan did just a few minutes earlier.
Led by junior running back Phillip Lindsay who amassed 219 yards on 26 carries, the Buffaloes' offense rolled through an outmatched ASU front en route to 315 rushing yards and 580 total yards on Saturday evening.
It was Lindsay's first career 200-yard game, and he became the first Buffaloes' player to rack up more than 200 rushing yards since Chris Brown had 211 yards on the ground at Missouri in November of 2002.
"As a running back, when you can get through the line five yards before you get touched, that's a running back's dream," Lindsey said. "These guys got it done for us. It's all because of these guys."
Lindsay brought his entire offensive line to the team's postgame press conference, acknowledging the efforts of a group that never once allowed the Sun Devils to bring him down behind the line of scrimmage.
"These guys right here made me, man" Lindsay said. "I am excited to have that 75-yard run but I am more excited that we were able to move the ball as a team efficiently. At the end of the day it's all about the team and as long as I am helping with the team, that's all that matters."
This offseason, Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre hired former Texas Tech assistant coach Darrin Chiaverini to work alongside third-year assistant Brian Lindgren as a Co-Offensive Coordinator. Chiaverini has opened up Colorado's offensive attack, incorporating spread principles and an up-tempo scheme that entered the weekend second in the Pac-12 in total plays from scrimmage.
"We felt like the tempo that we could get going with our tempo that we could get downhill," MacIntyre said. "Alex Kelly and our whole offensive line, Alex was in control of how to block it and we were doing different things and doing it quick and getting lined up quick. Sefo did some great job getting us in the right runs and then Phillip Lindsay, I told him all week run like you're going to break glass, I told all the running backs that."
Against the Sun Devils, Colorado ran 84 plays compared to just 65 for an ASU attack that prides itself on being a high-octane offense.
"Our guys were giving effort, they weren't not giving effort," Graham said. "The tempo was overwhelming to us, and what you've got to do is stop them on 1st and 10. Once you get rolling, that's when tempo really works on you. We haven't played very well on the road, but it has a lot to do with how they played tonight."
Lindsay and the Buffaloes put an exclamation point on their performance on a 75-touchdown run on the first play of the third quarter. Leading 23-10 against a Sun Devils' team that has excelled during the second half this season, Lindsay put the game out of reach as he broke through the line of scrimmage and outraced every ASU defender to the end zone.
"ASU is known to blitz a lot," Buffaloes' left tackle Jeromy Irwin said. "They are a great defense and they get a lot of sacks with a lot of negative yardage plays but there are those opportunities when you can up and they aren't gap sound. That was one of the opportunities when they brought a blitz. We were able to open it up and Phil just went, I mean I could have ran through that hole, that's how big it was."
Quarterback health haunts ASU
ASU's inability to stop the run proved fatal against the Buffaloes, but the Sun Devils were unable to get their own run game off the ground in Boulder.
The Sun Devils rushed for 50 yards on 28 attempts --an average of 1.8 yards per carry-- against a Colorado defense that was able to load the box because of a limited ASU offense.
After missing last Saturday's game against UCLA with a high ankle sprain, sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins rushed through his recovery process and was healthy enough to play against the Buffaloes. Unfortunately for Wilkins and the Sun Devils, healthy enough wasn't going to give ASU a chance against Colorado.
"No, I don't think (he's close to 100 percent,)" Graham said after the game. "Obviously it gave us the best chance to have a chance to be competitive. And he felt like he could go and protect himself and I think he could. Obviously he was not 100 percent. He might have been 90, 85, something like that, I don't know."
Wilkins was forced into action against Colorado because redshirt freshman backup Brady White suffered a season-ending foot injury in the fourth quarter against UCLA in the Sun Devils' 23-20 win last week.
With White out and fellow redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins sidelined with a neck injury incurred in training camp, ASU burned the redshirt of freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole in the closing minutes against the Bruins.
Sterling-Cole and freshman Jack Smith spent the week of practice preparing to play against Colorado, but Graham said a banged up Wilkins gave ASU the best chance to win Saturday because Sterling-Cole and Smith have spent the majority of the year practicing with the scout team.
"Our other options have just not even repped at quarterback," Graham said. "They've been repping on the scout team so and he (Wilkins) practiced. He practiced on Wednesday and Thursday and it was just, again, he wanted to play and he felt like he could play and he gave us the best option. We obviously changed a lot of things with multiple tight ends who could block and we didn't have much success there."
Wilkins finished 13-for-35 for 149 yards against a Colorado front that feasted on his lack of mobility. A clearly hampered Wilkins scrambled on just three different occasions, all of which were not designed run plays.
The Buffaloes finished with five sacks of the Sun Devils' signal-caller, who wasn't lifted from the game until the final series when the Buffaloes held a 24-point lead.
Even though Wilkins didn't participate in practice periods open to the media on Tuesday and Wednesday, the sophomore insisted after the game he didn't experience any trouble because of his ankle.
"I was 100 percent healthy entering the game and I had no problems," Wilkins said. "I was ready to play since I practiced all week."
The loss dropped the Sun Devils to 5-2 on the season and 2-2 in Pac-12 play, and ASU now hopes to regain ground in what figures to be a tightly contested race for the South Division crown.
After a game in which the Sun Devils were out-gained by more than 300 yards, out-hustled at the line of scrimmage, and out-manned at the quarterback position, Wilkins knows ASU needs to bounce back against Washington State.
"I'm proud of the way this team fought, we just got outplayed tonight," Wilkins said. "Colorado played a very great game, coached a very great game. At the end of the day, it's a win and a loss on the board, we caught an 'L' today."