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No. 21 Colorado Buffaloes vs. Arizona State Sun Devils: Week 6 preview

Buffs face their toughest opponent of the season to date.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 21 Colorado Buffaloes (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) are off to the best start in the past 20 years, scoring over 40 points per contest in a season for the first time in the Mike MacIntyre era. A lot has been made about the combined record of their opponents, which currently sits at 1-16, despite two of them being celebrated programs in Nebraska and UCLA. That said, Colorado’s first real conference test of the season comes against the Arizona State Sun Devils (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12), who are off to a decent start five games into Herm Edwards’ first season in Tempe.

A new-look ASU coaching staff brings Edwards back to the sidelines for the first time in a decade, since last coaching in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and NY Jets. His first stint at the collegiate level paired him with offensive coordinator Rob Likens and defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales. ASU is coming off a big 52-24 beat down of Oregon State on Saturday night with running back Eno Benjamin rushing for a school record 312 yards on 30 carries and four touchdowns.

Unlike Colorado, Arizona State has been tested this season with both of their losses coming by seven points in road contests against San Diego State and No. 10 Washington. Sun Devils quarterback Manny Wilkins threw a 48-yard pass to Frank Darby down to SDST’s 2-yard line with six seconds left, and officials called targeting on Aztecs DB Trenton Thompson. After review, the call was upheld, but the refs determined the pass to Darby was incomplete and San Diego State survived with a 28-21 upset win. In the following week, Washington out powered ASU on the final drive of the game, holding off the Sun Devils potential comeback to win 27-20.

Arizona State celebrated their 600th win in last year’s 41-30 rout of Colorado. The fourth quarter comeback was fueled by Demario Richard having 141 of his 189 rushing yards and a touchdown late in the game. The Buffs and Sun Devils combined for 1,037 yards of total offense and 50 first downs during the early November contest.

Colorado’s highly-efficient offense led by quarterback Steven Montez continues to improve week after week. The El Paso, Texas native contributed 318 total yards and three touchdowns last week against the Bruins, for a season total of nearly 1,100 yards passing, 12 total touchdowns to two interceptions. Montez leads the nation with a 75.8 completion percentage thru four games played. One of his go-to options this season is Laviska Shenault Jr., a top-five receiver in the nation who is thriving at multiple positions with 581 yards and six total touchdowns.

Montez is tasked with breaking down Arizona State’s 3-3-5 defense with a “Tillman” position, a scheme adopted by Danny Gonzales from his days at San Diego State with Rocky Long. It’s similar to the way CU uses their Buff Backer, except catered towards different formations. This ASU defense runs on being the aggressor, instead of defenders waiting for plays to develop. The uncertainty causes confusion for opposing quarterbacks reading coverage. Whether Gonzales is going with a designed blitz package or stunting to one will be what Montez has to stay ahead of during drives.

Colorado’s offense beats the 3-3-5 trap with a consistent hurry-up attack. Keeping ASU’s defense scattered around the field will minimize tackles for loss opportunities. Montez’s pocket awareness is key with quick decisions needed to either tuck and run, or improvise on the fly. Buffs running back Travon McMillian adds another dimension to the ground game, hoping to exploit an ASU squad that has allowed 743 rushing yards in the past three games. A balanced offensive game plan can be expected for CU against ASU’s defensive complexity.

Manny Wilkins leads the Sun Devils offense as a senior three-year starter, one of twelve returning players on the entire roster and likely the most important to ASU’s success this season. He has thrown for 1,224 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception that came in his best performance against Michigan State. Eno Benjamin stepped into the starting role left by the exit of Damario Richard and Kalen Ballage, becoming a premium option for Rob Likens, who’s trending toward a run-first style as of late. A week after dismantling Oregon State, Benjamin faces a Colorado defense ranked 46th against the run allowing 156.3 yards per game and the least amount of rushing touchdowns among Pac-12 teams with three.

The big matchup to watch is Sun Devils wide receiver N’Keal Harry against the Buffs secondary. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, the playmaking threat presents a difficult test for either Dante Wigley or Delrick Abrams. Harry plays with a similar style to CSU’s Preston Williams, but tends to be more physical fighting off defenders. Wigley held ASU’s top receiver to six receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown in last year’s contest.

News and Notes

The Buffs are ranked for the first time since the end of the 2016 season. Out of the 14 undefeated teams left in FBS, only two are west of the Mississippi—former Big Eight/Big 12 foes Colorado and Oklahoma.

From the desk of Dave Plati:

“Colorado is the last remaining undefeated team in the Pac-12; the last time that the Buffs were the last undefeated team standing in a conference was in November 1989: after a 27-21 win over Nebraska that matched teams with 8-0 records, CU was the last undefeated team in the Big 8”

How Good Is This Shenault Guy? CU’s Laviska Shenault continues to lead the nation in receptions (38, or 9.5 per game) and in receiving yards (581, or 145.3 per). His 38 receptions in four games wasn’t attained in a full season by a Buffalo until 1967, when WR Monte Huber (also as a sophomore) caught 45 passes. And the 581 yards? That figure wasn’t reached until 1984, when TE Jon Embree caught 51 passes for 680 yards. In all, CU’s leader in receptions have topped 38 catches just 27 yards and the 581 yards only 21 times. The DeSoto, Texas product is certainly on pace to rewrite the receiving record book.”

Obscure stat of the week: “Colorado has run exactly 300 plays on offense this season – with 176 of those on its scoring drives (58.7 percent); the opponent has run 86 of their 292 offensive plays on its scoring possessions, or 29.2 percent, half in comparison to the Buffaloes. The bulk of CU’s yardage this year has come on those scoring drives (1,550 of 1,959, or 79.1 percent), as CU has scored on 25 of 53 drives this year (20 touchdowns), and those include two kneel-downs at end of games; opponents have scored on just 10 of 55 drives (5 TD).”

Colorado stay’s home for a second-straight conference game against Arizona State on Saturday, Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. MT. The Buffs trail the all-time series 1-8 going back to 2006. The lone win came two years ago with a 40-16 upset over the Sun Devils. Family weekend at Folsom Field with a projected sellout of 50,000 expected.

TV: Pac-12 Network (National)

Radio: 850 KOA

Announcers: Mark Johnson (play-by-play), Gary Barnett (color), Andy Lindahl (sidelines)

Odds: Colorado -2

Weather forecast: 48° Cloudy