The Buffs head down to the desert this weekend a bit worse for wear and still looking to find some traction after succumbing to the Oregon Ducks in the second half. The things that undid them late at Folsom Field last Saturday could very well be the same factors that seal their fate this Saturday in Sun Devil Stadium. Here are the three things Colorado needs to accomplish in order to hang with Arizona State and give themselves a puncher's chance.
This has been an issue for CU teams for years on end it seems, and this coaching staff has made it a point of emphasis since arriving in Boulder. The Buffs hang a sign above the locker room during each game that simply states "Start Fast! Finish Strong!" Never will starting fast prove more important than when playing against Arizona State and Todd Graham. Last year, the Buffs put together a solid three-quarter performance against the Sun Devils, even playing well enough to win the game. The issue, however, was that they were down 14-0 by the end of the 1st quarter and were trailing 17-0 before putting their first points on the board in the second frame. That game, obviously, was at home. Avoiding the early hole is even more critical on the road, and that's not something we've seen the Buffs accomplish all too often of late.
If CU does go down early, it's a safe bet that they will trail the rest of the way. Since 2012, the Sun Devils have only lost one game in which they've shut out the opponent in the first quarter (Notre Dame in 2013) compiling a 21-1 record in such contests. Additionally, Arizona State has lost just one game under Graham when leading at halftime, the lone loss coming in that bizarre game in Corvallis last season. Overall, the Sun Devils hold a 27-1 record when leading at the half. So, clearly the Buffaloes need to score in the opening minutes and they also need to secure a few stops. A decent start would do wonders for their confidence and will also enable them to stay in this game late.
Sefo Liufau is beaten up, in fact he's far too bruised for only having played five games. It began in game one. After the loss to Hawai'i, I watched him gingerly leave the locker room and slowly hobble his way across the field to the team bus in a dimly lit Aloha Stadium and wondered aloud how he'd be able to make it through this 13 game gauntlet. I knew the answer to that question, Liufau is one of the toughest players I've seen play the game at any position, but how much his physical health is affecting his ability is a critical question going into this weekend's matchup and will likely continue to be for the rest of the season.
In the absence of Sam Kronshage Colorado will most likely be starting redshirt freshman John Lisella II at right tackle and moving big man Stephane Nembot over to the left side on Saturday night. Lisella has shown promise and will have had more time to prepare, but he'll be facing one of the nation's best and most aggressive pass rushes in his first start. There will not be much room for error. ASU does a terrific job of throwing out varied looks and disguising their intentions, so much so that they're currently averaging 8.8 tackles for loss per game, good for second in the conference and ninth in the nation. It's highly likely that Sefo will be on the move, and that the Sun Devils will be blitzing early and often. Aside from simply blocking better in pass protection, the Buffs can also combat this imminent pressure by...
Running the Ball
Aside from Oregon's talent advantage on offense, the largest reason the Buffs lost last weekend was because they could not get the ball moving on the ground. They were unable to consistently pick up yardage on first down, and finished with only 77 yards rushing averaging a dismal 2.1 yards per carry. If they are again unable to get into a rhythm and fail to give themselves manageable second and third downs against the Sun Devils, proceedings will get away from this team in a hurry. Oregon brought more and more pressure as the game wore on, eventually forcing the game-clinching turnover and shutting down Colorado's offense thereafter. The same could very well happen in Tempe if CU is forced into obvious passing downs and is unable to stay on the field, leaving a defense who will have their own hands full out to dry.
Arizona State possesses playmakers across the board, and, unlike Oregon, has a very real quarterback calling the shots. The Buffalo defense will need to focus first on stopping the two-pronged (and possibly three-pronged if D.J. Foster sees looks out of the backfield) ground attack consisting of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. This too, will prove a tall task with both Kenneth Olugbode and Addison Gillam out with leg injuries. Rick Gamboa, Ryan Severson, and N.J. Falo will need to step up and help their front get stops. If Tedric Thompson and Chidobe Awuzie are having to make the majority of those tackles in the secondary, ASU will likely have been ripping off large chucks of rushing yardage and moving up and down the field.
This game looked far more manageable just one week ago. The Buffs enter this matchup at an unfortunate point in time, dealing with key injuries and meeting ASU just as they've seemed to find the light switch. It's going to take an effort similar to the one that kept them in the game against Oregon until the 4th quarter. They'll need to find a way to turn the Sun Devils over, manage their explosive offense, and withstand the defensive pressure. Do all of those things and they'll be in this game, if they struggle in any one phase things could get slightly out of hand. So, enjoy the gorgeous fall weather this weekend and enjoy another round of late night Pac-12 action.