Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, September 11, 2014

2014 ASU Football Preview

The start of the season has been nice and all, but it doesn't really count until the first fall day in Folsom.  Say what you will about the football program, but that stadium is a special, special place.  Any opportunity to visit the old girl is worthy of celebration, and Saturday night's matchup with Arizona State is no different.

With the season's first date in Boulder also comes BuffNation's first up-close and personal look at Phase I of the improvement project, the first major upgrades to the stadium since my sophomore year.  In case you don't understand my meaning, they're long overdue.
Starting to come together! From:
Athletic Director Rick George says the premium seating options at the north end of Folsom will be ready to go by gameday.  While I see plenty of work that needs doing when I peek at the construction cam, I have no reason to doubt his veracity.  Assuming the areas are up to code by kickoff, we'll have honest-to-Tad evidence that this program is headed in the right direction.  I almost don't care what the score ends up being against the Sun Devils, that construction schedule already baring fruit is enough of a win for me.


Kickoff from beautiful Folsom Field is scheduled for 8pm Saturday.  It's a BLACKOUT game, so those with tickets need to remember to don their darker finery.  Coverage for those out and about can be found on ESPNU, with the radio call on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Last year CU headed into the desert hoping for a win, and came out licking their wounds with a new QB. This was the game last season that berthed the Sefo Liufau era, as the then-freshman slinger was called on to spell struggling veteran Connor Wood early in the first quarter.  Although seeing the frosh get his first taste of the college game was a welcome change of pace, it did little to alter the result, as Arizona State waltzed to a 54-13 final.
Sefo gets his first action.
That switch under center was one of the few positives to come from the 2013 affair in Tempe.  The Buffs were repeatedly knocked around throughout the first half, as ASU scored the game's first 25 points en route to a 47-6 halftime lead, and the game was never really competitive. For the contest, CU was out-gained 532-268.

It was clear early on that a change needed to be made on offense.  Through CU's first three drives they were stuck in reverse, going three-and-out each time, and only totaling a paltry sum of -6 yards.  That offensive dysfunction gave the Sun Devil offense the unneeded advantage of a short field for their opening possessions, essentially sealing the affair before it even started.  It got so ugly so quickly that ASU Coach Todd Graham said at halftime that "we'll be real sportsmanlike, and do what's right," and proceeded to completely downshift his team after the break.  Throughout the games final minutes, each side only got three possessions, and I had to keep checking to make sure the refs didn't slip a running clock past anyone.
ASU didn't have to work too hard to put the Buffs to bed early.
As for Liufau, who had the unenviable position of playing his first game on the road with his team already down 25-0, he actually played decent ball.  The Buffs scored their lone first half points on his first possession at the helm - a 80-yard touchdown drive - and, given the benefit of a mental break at half, Liufau came out and ran three essentially OK drives in the final frames.  He did throw two picks, and ran just as many negative yardage drives as Wood had, but there were flashes of promise that were enough to tempt me to keep watching.  To-date, his grip on the #1 job hasn't lessened one bit.

Regardless, you have to expect that CU will come up with a better performance against the Sun Devils in 2014.  Not only is the game in Folsom, but you can't do much worse than what they showed last season in Phoenix.

The Sun Devils in 2014 - 

ASU has gotten off to a fast start in 2014, breezing through the first two weeks against soft competition, notching two easy wins, and racking up plenty of offensive yards in the process.

In week one they hosted the FCS Weber State Wildcats, and played the rude hosts by scoring the game's first 38 points on the way to a 45-14 blowout.  Week two featured a road trip to New Mexico to play the Lobos, but, while the first half was competitive, the end result, a 58-23 triumph, wasn't.  These games are part of a very slow wind-up to the meat of the season in Tempe.  Including Saturday's game in Boulder, the Sun Devils will have been favored in each of their first three games by double digits against teams figured to finish below .500.
The Sun Devils have been forking cream puffs early on.
Playing such soft competition, it's no wonder that ASU is currently 7th nationally in offense, averaging over 595 yards per contest.  It's mostly being done on the ground (*gulp*), where the read-option spread has already churned out 690 yards through only two games.  In total, they almost average more on the ground per game (345) than CU's suspect run D has allowed through two starts (371).  They play fast, and come at you looking to score from play one.  It's a daunting attack to scheme against, especially considering that more heralded rushing units (read: Oregon) await deeper in the conference slate.

If there's any crack in the armor, it might be the defense where they're replacing nine starters from the previous season. That vulnerability might have begun to peek out against New Mexico, as they seemed susceptible to breakdowns in the first half.  In the game, the Lobos were allowed to keep pace with the surging Sun Devil offense, answering ASU's opening 22-0 charge with a 21-7 run of their own.  Overall, UNM tried to play keep-away with the football, running it 56 times as opposed to only 12 passing attempts, controlling the action for almost 35 minutes.  It worked for a time, but ASU scored on 9 of 15 drives, well under three minutes each time, to swarm past any hint of an upset bid.  With an offense that fast and that efficient, they just may not need a defense at all.

Star Players - 

With stunning rushing numbers out of the gate, I'd be a fool to pick anyone other than running back DJ Foster to highlight first.  The 5-11 junior from Scottsdale, AZ is currently 3rd nationally in rushing with 364 yards.  A solid, compact runner, he's got the accompanying burst to make the second level and exploit miss-directed defenses.  He's averaging a ridiculous 10.7 yards per touch this season, and should have no problem posting similar numbers Saturday night.
Not even this fat lineman from Weber State could slow down Foster
To make things worse, Foster is also a strong receiver out of the backfield, and is second on the team in receptions in 2014.  The Sun Devils rely on him heavily, and you could/should see him get strong consideration for All-Pac-12 this winter.  The complete package, his coach calls him 'one of the best football players I've ever coached.'

Foster isn't the only one to keep an eye on, however.  This being the read-option, 3rd year starting QB Taylor Kelly will be a factor, as well, and currently ranks second on the team in rushing yardage.  Combined with his 215 ypg through the air on a 61% completion rate, the 6-2 senior from Idaho is a solid dual-threat who could tear the Colorado defense apart with some quick reads.

The veteran Kelly is a defensive headache waiting to happen.
Additionally, Falcon product and former CU recruiting target Kalen Ballage has been featured as ASU's short yardage back, leading to three scores in the early going.

Out wide, the leading pass catcher is junior Jaelen Strong.  If the Sun Devils are going to hurt the Buffs through the air, it'll probably be with Strong who is clearly the best WR of the bunch.  At 6-3, 215 lbs, the Pennsylvania product has great size, and is a continually improving target for Kelly.  His stated goal this year is to break the program receiving record, but is just slightly off that pace through two games.

On defense, the emerging star is Viliami Moeakiola, who features out of the spur slot - sort of an up-safety or adapted linebacker.  Moeakiola, at 6-1, 215, would seem to be a little small for a linebacker spot, so the hybrid position is probably the best fit for his makeup.  So far, the sophomore has been flourishing, having already recorded 13 tackles, 2.5 for loss, with a sack and a forced fumble.  He's active, aggressive, and all over the field.  As the Sun Devils have struggled ($) with getting four-down pressure on the QB this season, his availability as a blitzer is key.
Moeakiola will look to get into the backfield early and often.
Elsewhere, senior defensive back Damarious Randall leads the team in solo tackles, having already notched 15 on the young season.  Expect him to be in on blitz packages with Moeakiola and true linebacker Salamo Fiso, who is also grabbing headlines as a sophomore.

Coaching - 

Shockingly, Todd Graham is still the man in Tempe.  You would have thought that the coaching version of a drifter would've floated away to the next set of greener pastures by now, but still he remains in the Valley of the Sun.
Aw shit, he stuck around.
The reigning Pac-12 coach of the year added nearly $1 million in bonuses over the offseason, thanks to his efforts in leading the Sun Devils to an impressive 10-4 (8-1) record.  They played so well during their conference slate, only losing an early conference tilt at the Stanford Cardinal, that they were afforded the opportunity to host the third annual Pac-12 Championship Game last December.  While the Cardinal manhandled them for the second time, the Pac-12 South title was a statement achievement for a program on the rise.

Graham clearly has this bunch on the upswing.  Recruiting is up to match, and, while they lost plenty of defensive starters, there are few offenses in the west as good as the group on display at ASU.  If they even manage a few stops over the course of their Pac-12 schedule, they could repeat as South champions.

Predicition - 

My record: 1-1. Against the spread: 0-2. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +21 pts/gm)
Line as of Wednesday @ 7pm - CU +13.5, O/U 68

For the first time this season, CU enters the game as the underdog, and with good reason.  The defending division champs should have no trouble putting up fast, punishing offensive drives against Colorado's defense. The run attack is far too good for the Buffs to contain for very long, and much of the first half will probably be spent watching the visitors stream down the sideline.

For CU to stay in the game, they have to stave off the Sun Devil's opening rush.  Last year's 25-0 start was ugly, but also true to form.  Both of ASU's early season opponents this year have seen similar chasms open up before them - 38-0 against Weber State, and 22-0 against New Mexico - and it's more a reality of playing Arizona State than anything else.  They're going to try and bum-rush you early.

I'm not saying that keeping ASU off the board in the first quarter will lead to a CU win, just that it's their only hope to avoid a home de-pantsing.  Regardless, I can't help but see this as another Colorado set-back, with the Buffs probably failing to make much of a game of it.

ASU 59 - CU 17


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