Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, October 9, 2015

2015 CU vs Arizona State Football Preview

The Buffs continue to find themselves dealing with the repercussions of a growing list of injuries. It started when Jeromy Irwin tore his ACL against UMass, kicking off a string of knocks that were mostly focused on the offensive side of the ball.  The next game brought with it injuries to a number of featured performers behind the now shaken offensive line, including Michael Adkins and Patrick Carr from the running corps and QB Sefo Liufau.  For Liufau, while he's still been starting under center (and will again be this Saturday), the pain has evident, and the effectiveness has suffered.  Adkins and Carr, on the other hand, haven't been seen since the RMS, and are both listed at the bottom of the depth chart for Week 6.  I'm not saying that Irwin's absence was the cause behind the effect, just that it's highly coincidental the the injuries sprung up that week -- a particularly physical game against little brother.

Recently, however, the injury bug has switched sides, and now resides with the defense.  The linebacking corps has been the hardest hit, as they can now claim to be down two starters. Addison Gillam had already been out, a consistent sideline presence since Week 2.  He will now be joined for the next few weeks by star Kenneth Olugbode, who left the Oregon game early with a leg injury. With both out, CU will turn to the relatively unheralded pair of Rick Gamboa and Ryan Severson. A trio of defensive linemen - Jase Franke, Leo Jackson III, and Derek McCartney - also missed action in the Oregon game, but are expected to return.  The missed plays from five of CU's best in the front-seven no doubt played a role in the Ducks' second half deluge of rushing yards.

The point is that the improved depth that everyone touted in the preseason will be put to the test.  If the old mantra in football has always been 'next man up,' then the Buffs will have to hope that the next men are up to the challenge.  The schedule certainly doesn't get any easier from here, and, without a BYE week (thanks to the Hawai'i trip and the RMS's inflexibility), the strain will only continue to mount.


Hype Music for the Week: "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones

Ah yes, the Rolling Stones.  For the record, in the eternal Stones v Beatles debate, I am decidedly with these guys.  This is not up for discussion.  I'll leave the sympathy for the Sun Devils to the British rockers, though, for I have none.


Kickoff from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ is set for 8pm tomorrow evening. Dinged up, can the Buffs bounce back from a tough home loss?  Tune in to FOX Sports 1 to find out. (The radio call is, of course, on 850 KOA)

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Late in the 4th quarter, with the Arizona State offense stuck in neutral and the Buffs knocking at the door of making it a one score game, I turned to a friend and said three defiant words: 'we're gonna win.'  Of course, mere seconds later, CU quarterback Sefo Liufau miss-read a guaranteed touchdown opportunity, and threw what was essentially a game-ending interception.  While it would take a few more drives to make it final, at that point Arizona State's 38-24 win was all but assured.
The Buffs very nearly pulled a shocking upset out of thin air.  From: the BDC
Both my comeback etiquette SNAFU and Sefo's botched read were endemic to a CU performance on the cusp of something memorable.  Repeatedly, the Buffs put themselves in a position to claim a statement victory, yet, just as repeatedly, they managed to find ways to spoil their otherwise fantastic performance. For a program still relearning to function at the FBS level, it was an unsurprising opportunity lost.

There's plenty of positives to take away from that effort, however.  Deeper than Colorado out-gaining the vaunted Sun Devils' top-40 offense by 119 yards (545 to 426), however, it was the fight and determination the team showed that impressed me the most.  They had as many opportunities to pack up the tents as they did turnovers (six), but they stuck it out, and battled the ranked Sun Devils tooth and nail.  Three years ago, this program loses that game by 35+, easy. Yet there the team was with five minutes to go, on the doorstep of making it a seven-point game.  That, in and of itself, is progress; a mode that we have seen continue this fall.
There was a lot of fight in the Buffs last season. From: the AP
The trick, as has always been the case over the last two seasons, will be turning close brushes with victory, like this tilt with ASU from a year ago, into something in the left-hand column of the sports pages.  A year later, in hostile territory, such an effort would finally signal that the program had turned a corner.

The Sun Devils in 2015 - 

Their NCAA stat sheet can be found here.

I really don't know what to make of the Sun Devils this season.  I thought I did, having watched their performances over the first few games of the year.  Check out this blow-out loss at the hands of Texas A&M; they gave up nine sacks! Or, how 'bout this lackluster performance against FCS Cal Poly? Still not enough of a clue?  Take a peek at USC's dismantling of them in Tempe.  Through four weeks, there was simply nothing on paper or film to indicate that they were anything more than a bust in the rough-and-tumble Pac-12 South.
The Sun Devils didn't look very good through the season's opening weeks.
Then, however, came a curveball over the weekend.  They were welcomed to Los Angeles by the then-top-10 UCLA Bruins, and, in true Rick James fashion, began to stomp their muddy boots all over UCLA's brand new suede couch.  The final, a 38-23 thwacking that wasn't even that close.  Really?  These Sun Devils?  Yep, held the Bruins to 3-14 on 3rd down, and otherwise manhandled a Playoff contender. Hell, I think Kalen Ballage is still moving that ruck somewhere.  Maybe, then, it's time to re-assess the Sun Devils. They did have to play back-to-back triple option teams in Cal Poly and New Mexico, so maybe that horrific performance against the Trojans was an outlier, and they aren't all that bad?

The rushing numbers are certainly skewed by those two games, and the Sun Devils are not nearly as average as their numbers on the ground (156 yards allowed per game, 7th in the league) might suggest.  The Bruins could only muster 62 rushing yards against them, while ASU controlled the line of scrimmage throughout.  Overall, in allowed yards per carry (which adjusts for teams who just run all the damn time), they're only allowing about 3.5 yards per touch, which is well in the top-35 nationally.  CU has struggled running the ball against 'real' teams this season, and, with Adkins still out, that streak should only continue this weekend. Colorado's outlook is a little better out on the edge, where the Sun Devils are 103rd in passing yards allowed, but, as we saw against Oregon, that can only count for so much if the running game isn't working. Balance is essential, and ASU won't let CU achieve it tomorrow.  Their defense is more legit than it seems, which will show over the rest of the season.
Did the Devils turn their season around in LA last week? From: USA Today
I'm a little more dubious about the Devils' offensive turnaround, however.  They lost a lot when three-year-starter Taylor Kelley graduated, even though the current starter, Mike Bercovici, got plenty of spot-action over the years.  When Kelly missed games last year, ASU was a completely different team, and not always in a good way (like against CU, when they couldn't move the ball at all).  Unsurprising, that trend has continued to this season, as they just haven't been able to consistently replicate the success the now-graduate assistant generated. Sure, the ball is moving all right (about 440 yards per game), but it's not leading to enough scoring.  The Sun Devils are about 10 points per game off their normative pace of the previous three seasons, which is massive. Beyond just QB growing pains, however, it may also be an issue of the offensive line.  Sure, they're improving with time, but there's just no separating my mind from that nine-sacks-allowed effort against the Aggies. As leaky as CU was last week, they only allowed Liufau to be brought down five times. I can't even imagine what nine sacks would look like live.

Wrap it all up, and I think these guys are still clearly a step below the Pac-12's upper echelon (Utah, Stanford, USC). I'll buy season-long improvement, and they're certainly bowl-bound, but this won't be the climactic march to a Pac-12 title appearance that many were predicting prior to the season.  A good football team, though; one that can be very dangerous against unfocused opponents, as UCLA would attest.

Star Players - 

The narrative usually starts under center, and this week is no different.  As mentioned earlier, I look at senior starter Mike Bercovici as a solid step down from the graduated Taylor Kelly.  That doesn't not mean the 6-2, 210 lbs California product is not an effective Pac-12 performer, however.  The conference's reigning Offensive Player of the Week is a solid dual-threat passer who has amassed 1,464 yards of total offense and 12 touchdowns through five games.  While maybe not Kelly, he is still capable of leading his team to wins, and he has a veteran's familiarity with the Sun Devils' system, having made three starts and five other appearances a year ago.
While not as deadly as Taylor Kelly, Bercovici can still cause some headaches.  From: USA Today.
It is notable, though, that Bercovici doesn't have the benefit of the exceptional wide receiver Jaelen Strong that Kelly had in previous seasons.  Strong caught 157 passes for 2,287 yards and 17 scores over 2013 and 14; a record that is impossible to replace immediately, and one that earned him a selection by the Houston Texans.  With that back-shoulder connection gone, the newly-ascended starter has struggled to make a similar connection with a current wideout, which is a huge part of the slowed offense.  Accordingly, they've fallen from 46th to 87th nationally in yardage per completion.

The receiving corps that remains is lead by senior DJ Foster.  Lining up all over the place, and doing his fair share of rock-toting (second in the team in rushing yards, came into the season with over 2,000 career rushing yards), the Scottsdale product is a major part of their attack, averaging about 10 touches per start. You're definitely going to hear his name tomorrow -- he has caught a pass in each of his 44 collegiate games. Also on the edge is graduate transfer Devin Lucien.  A former CU recruiting target, the 6-2, 195 lbs Lucien comes to the desert from Pac-12 South rival UCLA, in a weird instance of inter-division movement. He's been banged up this year, though, fighting through a sprained ankle and a hamstring issue.  When fully healthy, he's a game-changing weapon.
DJ Foster pops up everywhere.  From:
In the backfield, the Sun Devils continue to utilize an all-inclusive approach to using their running backs. Starter Demario Richard will be all over the field in both passing and running situations.  To-date, he's made 93 carries and 18 catches for a total of 748 yards and six scores.  He'll be a massive test for the Colorado front-seven, especially as injured as they are, as the 5-10, 220 lbs sophomore has produced almost half of his post-scrimmage yards after contact.  Gotta wrap him up!

The best on defense is junior linebacker Salamo Fiso.  He leads the country in solo tackles, and has stopped opponents behind the line of scrimmage 8.5 times on the year. He's a havoc-wreaker, and an elite one, at that.  Playing off of fellow 'backers Antonio Longino (playing an end/LB combo called 'devil'), Christian Sam,  and Viliami "Laiu" Moeakiola (another hybrid, this time of the safety variety, called a 'spur'), he forms the backbone of a group that is fast, aggressive, and one of the best in the league.
Fiso has a nose for the ball.  From: USA Today.
Up front, sophomore DT Tashon Smallwood has been making a name for himself.  The big 6-1, 280 lbs wrecking ball from Fresno has no sacks on the season, but has four tackles for loss.  Expect to get familiar with his name going forward, as he follows in the footsteps of recent line stars like Will Sutton.  True freshman JoJo Wicker has been a nice find, starting and terrorizing in his first fall on campus.

In the backfield, Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington start on the edge.  The pair of seniors have already combined for seven passes broken up on the year.  Senior safety Jordan Simone is another high-impact menace, who has already recorded two interceptions, a sack, and 45 tackles through five games. The meat of the 'D' may be up front, but the defensive backs are also very capable.

Coaching - 

I'm solidly on record as being an anti-Todd Graham, so I won't bore you with any more vitriol.  His first three seasons in Tempe certainly earned the 50-year old Texan a number of fans in the Grand Canyon State, so I will just have to learn to put up with him.  Going 28-12 (19-8) from 2012-2014, he has routinely had the Sun Devils in the top-two of the Pac-12 South, and in desirous bowl games.  If winning is the only thing, then he can truly claim to be one of the best coaches in America.  The plan and execution seemed to be on such a smooth roll, in fact, that the up-and-down results this year have seemed particularly out of place.
I look at this, and just see the one finger staring back at me.
I'll give him this, his teams are very disciplined.  The Sun Devils have been in the top 10 for fewest penalty yards per game in all of football each of his seasons in Tempe, and this year is no different.  Of all the color schemes ASU has adopted the last few years, they seem to like mustard yellow the least.

Prediction - 

My 2015 record: 4-1. Against the spread: 3-1. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +2.25 pts/gm
Line as of Tuesday @ 7pm - CU +15, O/U 55 1/2

Yeahhhhhhh, no. Down a few in the linebacking corps, and with an offense still finding their sea legs and health against Pac-12 competition, I don't see much of a chance in this one on the road.  Maybe more competitive than what we saw in the desert two years ago, but not by much.  We'll certainly see much better next week for homecoming against the UofA.

ASU 35 - CU 17


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