A South division showdown ushers in Pac-12 play for the Buffs and Sun Devils
This Saturday night's #Pac12AfterDark pairing of Arizona State and Colorado narrowly missed being a matchup of Top 25 teams. Both the Buffs and Sun Devils scored wins over ranked Big Ten opponents, with Arizona State surviving a defensive slog last week at Michigan State and Colorado pumping the brakes on the irrational Nebraska exuberance in Week 2.
However, Colorado became the latest Power 5 victim of the Mountain West Conference last week at home against Air Force. The Buffs have to regroup quickly following the first loss of the Mel Tucker era. Arizona State welcomes them into Sun Devil Stadium aiming to extend one of the only two undefeated starts in the Pac-12 South, and avenge a loss in Boulder a season ago.
Colorado knocked off the Sun Devils in a wild game a year ago, which pushed the Buffs to 5-0 — their last win of the 2018 season.
Colorado at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 10 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona State -8.5
When Colorado Has the Ball
Arizona State held each of its first three opponents — Kent State, Sacramento State, and Michigan State — to a single touchdown apiece. A defense that was heavy on freshmen like linebacker Merlin Robertson a year ago is flourishing with them now as sophomores. Robertson has 20 tackles, D.J. Davidson has 2.5 tackles for a loss, and Darien Butler, Tyler Johnson, and Jermayne Lole all have two. All are second-year Sun Devils. Add freshman defensive back Cam Phillips to the mix — he has Arizona State's sole interception of 2019 — and this is a youthful yet talented defense.
The numbers are certainly impressive, but there's no argument that Colorado's offense is the best Arizona State will have seen through four games. The Buffs scored 52 and 34 points in their first two games of the season, but a slow start doomed them to 23 in the overtime loss last week at Air Force.
Such is the theme for Colorado in all three games, though it was especially noticeable against Nebraska and Air Force. The Buffs come out of the blocks sluggishly and play from behind at some point. Arizona State's defense is too good to risk that again in Week 4. Establishing a multifaceted running game early is a must. Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham handle most of the rushing duties, but wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. — who scorched the Sun Devils a season ago — factors into the mix.
Shenault can do his most damage as a pass-catcher, however. Arizona State's secondary was hit or miss in 2018, and it has yet to really be tested with a competent passing attack this season. When Colorado quarterback Steven Montez is on, he's one of the most exciting playmakers in the Pac-12. It's just a matter of him getting going.
When Arizona State Has the Ball
An overwhelming defense's best complementary partner is a pounding run game. Arizona State has that, thanks to running back Eno Benjamin. Benjamin led all returning rushers in college football, save Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor. He's on a lesser pace through three games in 2019, producing 209 yards with one touchdown, but he has also taken on a lighter workload. Expect Benjamin to get more rushes than his 19 per game as Pac-12 play progresses.
That Benjamin's per-carry average is under four yards is a concern, though, and it's one reason Arizona State has one of the lowest red-zone touchdown conversion percentages in the nation. The Sun Devils are getting into the end zone just 27.3 percent of the time, worse than all but five programs. While freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels is averaging passing numbers almost identical to predecessor Manny Wilkins' line of 2018, the absence of an all-world receiver like N'Keal Harry who can go over the top of defenders in the red zone limits Arizona State at the goal line.
Colorado's defense is certainly vulnerable, having given up 30-plus points in every outing this season. But the Buffs have more playmakers on that side of the ball than Arizona State's first two opponents, Kent State, and Sacramento State. Against the latter, the Sun Devils struggled mightily to put the game away, finally shutting the door when Benjamin erupted for more than 70 yards on a pass from Daniels.
In all three contests, allowing penetration into the backfield has been an issue. Arizona State allowed nine tackles for loss to Sacramento State and has surrendered 23 on the season. That puts a heavier emphasis on explosive plays like the Daniels throw to Benjamin, and the Sun Devils get no reprieve from a defense with Nate Landman and Mustafa Johnson.
Expect quintessential Pac-12 After Dark in this one. Colorado has looked stellar for stretches this season and dismal at other times — all a by-product of a new coaching staff implementing its vision. Arizona State experienced it last year, before coming on strong late and contending for the Pac-12 South title. The Sun Devils seem to have their identity established now — that of a power football team with a stifling defense.
The contrast between Colorado and Arizona State is intriguing. If the score gets into the 30s, the outcome favors Colorado. Arizona State needs to impose its will early; otherwise, it risks falling victim to the Pac-12's recent trend of Top 25-losing teams.
Prediction: Arizona State 24, Colorado 23
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.