One week is sometimes all it takes to turn around a season. Just look at Arizona State. Coming off its second blowout loss of the first month, a 42-14 home rout against USC, the Sun Devils were in desperate straits. Now, after a wire-to-wire lead and two-score win at UCLA, Arizona State is right back in the mix as one of the Pac-12 South’s contenders.
Just as quickly as the Sun Devils regained their groove, a setback Saturday against Colorado could slow their momentum.
The Buffs sought to score their own upset last week, and hung with Oregon for three quarters before falling, 41-24.
Colorado is a dangerous trap opponent for some Pac-12 counterpart. Is this the week the Buffs trip up a team riding high?
College Football Podcast: Week 6 Preview with Tom Dienhart
Colorado at Arizona State
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona State -15
Three Things to Watch
1. Battle of the Runs
The offenses of both Arizona State and Colorado have been at their best this season when running multiple ball-carriers. The return of power-back Kalen Ballage to Arizona State’s lineup gives the Sun Devils the multifaceted look offensive coordinator Mike Norvell wanted, and it paid immediate dividends. Ballage carried a number of Bruins into the end zone for the final touchdown.
Slowing the duo of Demario Richard and Ballage is difficult enough, but the challenge is compounded with linebacker Kenneth Olugbode sidelined for the next month.
Conversely, Colorado’s inability to get the Christian Powell and Phillip Lindsay backfield going against Oregon hindered the Buffs’ attack. Colorado typically rolls with a three-man set, also showcasing Michael Adkins II, but he was out with a hamstring injury.
2. Special Teams Play
A recurring lament of Arizona State head coach Todd Graham through the Sun Devils’ difficult opening month center on his team’s play in special teams.
The message obviously resonated, as the Sun Devils were outstanding in special teams last week at UCLA. Punter Matt Haack effectively iced the game late in the fourth quarter, pinning the Bruins at the shadow of their own goal line to force a safety.
Still, special teams should be a critical component of Saturday’s contest. Even with last week’s heroics, the Sun Devils rank No. 120 nationally in yards surrendered on punt returns. They’re No. 52 on kickoff return coverage, but Colorado boasts one of the top returning outputs in all of college football at 27.3 yards per attempt.
3. Bringing the Blitz
It’s no secret Graham likes to bring heavy and consistent pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Last week, it rattled UCLA true freshman Josh Rosen. The more experienced Sefo Liufau can be a dangerous ball carrier if flushed from the pocket, and Colorado’s offensive line under positions coach Gary Bernardi has been effective keeping the quarterback upright.
Arizona State’s defensive strategy is decidedly feast or famine. Against UCLA, it feasted. Against USC, it starved.
Last week’s win was the first appearance of the Arizona State team many expected to see heading into 2015.
“It was extremely gratifying,” Graham said. “I was extremely proud of players and our staff for never wavering…and accomplishing something pretty special there in the Rose Bowl.”
The win at UCLA could certainly be a springboard into much bigger things, though Colorado will give Arizona State a test. The Sun Devils must continue to avoid the turnovers that vexed it through the first month and get off to a fast start to stay on the right track heading into the second half of the season.