Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports

Ten Takeaways: Colorado

Arizona State was soundly defeated by Colorado for the first time since the Buffaloes joined the Pac-12. What led to this happening and where do the Sun Devils go from here?

1. Starting sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins, even at far less than full strength, is a decision that's difficult to argue with given how much more information coaches have to go on than everyone else. It has been strongly indicated by the limited practice we've seen from freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole that he's nowhere near ready to run the ASU offense. He struggled even when there was no defense on the field last week in a two-minute segment. He's a good prospect because of his impressive physical tools, but those things are irrelevant -- and Sterling-Cole has struggled with accuracy and is in need to continued skill development in many respects -- without an understanding of how to run the offense. Sterling-Cole wasn't in Tempe in the spring, and was the fourth-string quarterback until three weeks before the start of the season. He's spent more time on opposing offenses for the scout team, than on ASU's offense. Colorado was a must-win game for the Sun Devils to have a realistic pathway to the Pac-12 South title, and even though Wilkins wasn't mobile, ASU could still run more of its playbook than if any other player was on the field. The importance of a healthy capable quarterback shouldn't be undervalued, and the Sun Devils have had a horrible luck season in this respect. 

2. Even though it was reasonable to start Wilkins, there came a point in the third quarter at which time it was apparent ASU wasn't going to win. Maybe it was after the 75-yard touchdown run to start the half by Colorado's Phillip Lindsay. Maybe it wasn't until the Buffaloes took a 20 point lead near the end of the quarter. Either way, Sterling-Cole probably should have been on the field then, if only to avoid Wilkins taking additional punishment. He was sacked five times in the game and hit a number of other times, with Colorado credited with six pressures. Once, he was slow to get up after being tackled by the ankles from behind on one of just a few times on the night he attempted to scramble. Clearly though, ASU coaches didn't feel comfortable inserting Sterling-Cole until the very end of the game, as sure a sign as any at their perspective on his preparedness. 

3. ASU's inability to run the football successfully in recent weeks has ground its overall offense to a halt. After the Sun Devils led the Pac-12 in scoring offense at more than 48 points per game through their first five games they've scored no more than 23 points in their last three games. They've lost two of those games convincingly, narrowly beat UCLA, and have seen their scoring offense plummet to No. 6 in the Pac-12. ASU had 75 rushing yards on 23 carries (2.3 yards-per-carry) against USC, 79 rushing yards on 34 carries against UCLA (2.3 yards-per-carry) and 50 rushing yards on 28 carries (1.8 yards-per-carry) against Colorado. None of those three opponents are in the Top-4 in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, and yet ASU's had almost no ability to run the football, and thus, no early down continuity. It's not just an offensive line problem, but that's as much a factor as anything else and it's especially hard against teams that are willing to commit to loading the box

4. Junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage were supposed to be the backbone of ASU's offense due to the team's new quarterback and young offensive line. But opponents are keying on stopping ASU's run, particularly after the injury to Wilkins and it's working well.  Richard had a 37 yard run out of the Sparky formation Saturday against Colorado, but but other than that ASU's top backs averaged 2.2 yards per carry. ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey didn't use the formation anywhere near as much as he did in several earlier games, which was a surprise given Richard's success on the best carry of the night, and also the team's situation at quarterback, with Wilkins playing nowhere near healthy. 

5. It's tough to play a low-possession, low-snaps field position game when you're not built for it defensively, but if ever a situation called for it, this was the game. In the first half alone, Wilkins threw incomplete passes on second and 7, second and 6, second and 8, and was sacked on second and 6 for a loss of 14 yards. This was a game that figured to see Colorado take more snaps than ASU -- it ended up being 84 to 63 -- and ASU's defense have to be on the field a lot, at altitude. Running the clock down on every play, running it on first and second downs, or quick high percentage run replacements that are very likely to be caught, are the creative ways to make for a lower play game and use the special teams advantage ASU held with senior punter Matt Haack, who punted 10 times for a 52.1 yard average. ASU wasn't deliberate enough offensively, with Wilkins' 13 of 35 performance the most obvious statistical example of that. That's way too many incomplete passes in a game like this. In the third quarter, Wilkins threw incomplete on second and 8, was sacked on second and 8, and threw incomplete on second and 8. Thee were seven plays on second down that went for zero or negative yards that were all passes or sacks in the game's first three quarters. 

6. There were no trick plays or unexpected surprises from ASU's offense or special teams in this game, and that's noteworthy. Those are types of things that would have been expected on Saturday given the team's quarterback situation, and a seeming need to provide a spark in some other way, creatively. If ASU was going to take as many low percentage snaps as it did offensively, some of those snaps had to involve ways to try to induce Colorado into assignment errors. There was really very little done to try to make that happen and it was surprising in this type of game. A fake punt or on-sides kick would have made sense. Even a generic flea flicker, or a jet sweep to a reverse, really anything to try to generate a spark. This goes along with ASU not using the Sparky formation more even after the Richard long run. It was a game remarkably devoid of any such action by the Sun Devils despite their challenges, which is pretty surprising. 

7. Even if the Sun Devils had been disciplined enough on offense with their approach to the game, it wouldn't have mattered because their defense was atrocious. Colorado had 580 total yards for average of 6.9 yards-per-play. ASU was already last in the Pac-12 entering the game at 6.6 yards allowed per play, and got worse in the category for its season. A very average Colorado rushing offense shockingly steamrolled the Sun Devils on the ground with 315 yards on 52 carries, including Lindsay's 75 yard touchdown run. The Sun Devils entered the game first in the Pac-12 at 89.3 rushing yards allowed per game, but looked nothing like even a decent run defense. ASU gave up two 60-plus yard plays from scrimmage, with the other being a 66 yard pass completion in which senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes lost his assignment after the initial route and the Buffaloes improvised. That means the Sun Devils are last nationally in 60-plus plays allowed, with eight this year. In a game that needs to be a field position battle to have a chance to win, getting run all over and giving up two 60-plus yard plays is a losing proposition. 

8. ASU players were gassed in this game playing at altitude. There were multiple instances of players loafing on defense, including its starting linebackers and even on some key plays. This was the result of not only being ineffective on offense, but the way in which that happened, with too many incomplete passes stopping the clock. It was also a product of having not enough healthy and capable defensive players who could be relied upon. ASU needed one more inside linebacker in this game but the absence of junior Christian Sam was costly and coaches apparently didn't feel comfortable giving anyone else those reps. The Sun Devils have already shown they are too thin in the secondary to substitute much, and up front, even though they did play a couple more players, they were clearly not fresh enough top stop the Colorado run game at the point of attack. ASU's defensive front four combined for 21 tackles in a game that saw the Buffaloes run the ball 52 times. Players were being blocked too easily and a huge part of it was how tired they were. On Monday, ASU coach Todd Graham admitted that conditioning was a factor and guys were playing too many reps and it's something they'll need to try to address and also get healthier. For Colorado, a new up-tempo approach to offense seemingly had its first real casualty, an ASU team that was athletically at least its equal. 

9. It's one thing to have a bad tackling performance against a USC team that features superior athletes, but there's no way ASU should have a half dozen or more blown tackles against Colorado. The Sun Devils had a better performance in this regard a week earlier against a UCLA offense that lacked its normal skill position firepower. ASU appeared to be recovering after the bottom fell out against the Trojans, but then just absolutely failed in this regard against the Buffaloes. We saw bad angles, bad technique, and bad effort, and it wasn't just one or two players, but basically everyone in the back seven. The Sun Devils spend about half their skill development portion of practice working on tackling, and require a lot of their players in this regard because of how much they pressure, but they aren't getting it done. You can't play a field position game when you're not able to tackle. 

10. As lopsided as the 40-16 result was, it really could have been worse quite easily. ASU scored 10 of its 16 points after it recovered two muffed punts by Colorado, one at the 31 and one at the 32 yard line, and already in scoring position. Senior kicker Zane Gonzalez tied the NCAA single game record with three 50-yard-plus field goals, including a school record 59-yarder he converted. Gonzalez became only the second player ever and first ASU player to earn Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors four times in a single season. He also set a FBS record with most career points by a kicker, at 468. 


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