Colorado took a few hits this weekend. A close loss to USC led to a drop out of the Top 25 and the Buffaloes have yet to defeat the Trojans. Yuck. I would be hard-pressed to think of a program that deserves a Buffalo stomping more than USC. Oh wait, no I wouldn’t. I can think of one that CU has also never beaten and they deserve a humbling loss, too. That’s right, it’s the Arizona State Sun Devils. I had the fortune (misfortune?) of watching the ASU-UCLA slugfest in Tempe, and I have some thoughts on the ASU team that the Buffs are facing this week, but they are less important than the cold hard numbers provided by stat wizard Bill Connelly. But it doesn’t matter, because you’ll be getting both in this article.
The number one thing that I noticed last Saturday, and this is backed by stats, is that ASU’s run defense KILLS teams. Their linebacker havoc rate sits at 7.8%, or ninth in the country, which should be about expected given how much Todd Graham blitzes. Renell Wren had a dominant game against UCLA, though from what I’ve seen, the Bruins’ offensive line couldn’t block a phone number. The real star up front is JoJo Wicker. He's balling out and he is a constant disruptive force along the line. He can rush from inside and out, and holds the edge pretty well in run support. The group up front has been great all year at occupying blockers and winning the line of scrimmage. The quality of the offensive lines that they have faced is questionable, but this group is doing what great groups should do against marginal groups... dominating. CU will have to attack the edges hard to be successful, or get very big on some offensive packages. For reference, Arizona State ranks in the top 10 for every defensive rushing advanced stat (overall S+P, success rate, adjusted line rate, power success rate, opportunity rate, and stuff rate) except one (explosiveness). The Buffs will need to have explosive plays to succeed against this run defense. Which is a problem since explosiveness in the run game has been the most disappointing part of the offense this year. Lindsay will need to shake some tackles. However, there is a bright side.
ASU’s passing defense is, to put it kindly, bad. The stats may be partially skewed due to Texas Tech and Cal, both prolific passing attacks. This skews both ways. Cal and Texas Tech weren’t going to run anyways, so stuffing them up front isn’t too hard and their raw numbers are so small that Arizona State may come off as tougher than they are. Matchup-wise, this sets up well for the Buffs. CU still holds the title of the number one ranked passing offense in the country, in terms of S+P. Whether it’s Steven Montez or Sefo Liufau, this offense will pass the ball, usually with effectiveness. The USC game showed a sloppy CU team that played slower that it would have liked. CU knows this and the coaches know this. Expect the Buffs to turn the tempo up in Folsom and really hit the quick passing game. ASU has the 72nd ranked passing defense, according to the S+P, and, more importantly, they are 120th in allowing explosive pass plays. CU is the 24th most explosive passing offense, but my eyes tell me that they go for the long ball often. That’s where it would be nice to have Sefo Liufau back to throw one of the prettiest deep balls in the country. There should be opportunities to connect on long pass plays, if the offensive line can keep the quarterback’s jersey clean.
Finally, let’s turn to an ASU offense in flux. Manny Wilkins led a run-based offense that fired on all cylinders. Then Wilkins sprained his ankle and say out for a few games (his status is TBA for Saturday). So they turned to Brady White, a less mobile passer who led ASU to a 1-1 record. Now Brady White is out for the year, so CU is either facing Dillon Sterling-Cole, who has thrown one college pass (an interception), or Manny Wilkins, who will certainly be hobbled if he is ready to go. Kalen Ballage is ASU’s best offensive weapon, and the Colorado product will be a tough test for the Buffs. He is big enough to run through arm tackles, fast enough to run by defensive lines, and has vision good enough to score EIGHT TOUCHDOWNS IN ONE GAME. Expect to see him in the backfield quite often, and I would honestly put a spy on him in every play. Ryan Moeller or Afolabi Laguda would suffice. If you can shut Ballage down, the Sparky offense becomes less scary. Demario Richard is a smart, solid back, but nothing too scary, and Tim White should be neutralized by CU’s secondary. But Ballage could single-handedly wreck this game. So keep him contained, and CU should win this game. We have the offense to make them pay through the air, and our defense should be stout enough on the back end to make ASU a one-dimensional offense.