This week, the ASU Sun Devils travel to Boulder to take on the Colorado Buffaloes. Colorado was expected to be improved this season, but has exceeded those expectations, and is 4-2 on the season, with losses to USC and Michigan, and a victory over Oregon in Eugene. They are ranked 34th in S&P+, compared to ASU at 55th, which gives them a 68% probability of beating ASU, with a projected margin of victory of 8.2. However, S&P+ does not take into account the fact that ASU may be playing with their 4th string quarterback, and is probably overstating the Sun Devils’ chances at victory. Additionally, Colorado is expected to get their starting quarterback, Sefo Liufau, back, although his backup performed well in his absence. ASU is definitely in for a challenge against Colorado, and will need several things to go well in order to win. Here are the three most important:
FIRST TINE TO VICTORY: CONTINUE TO IMPROVE ON DEFENSE
ASU’s defense will definitely need to build upon their performance against UCLA last week, as the offense, with either a hobbled Manny Wilkins or true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole at quarterback, will not likely be able to put up a lot of points against a pretty good Colorado defense. In fact, ASU will need to play their best defensive game of the season.
Colorado’s offense is good, ranking 33rd in S&P+, and averaging 5.9 yards/play, which ranks 37th. While their rushing game is decent, averaging 4.1 yards/carry, their passing offense is excellent, ranking first in S&P+. Both quarterbacks, Sefo Liufau and Stephen Montez, have played well, averaging 8.7 yards/attempt combined. This does not bode well for the Sun Devils, as the secondary has struggled most of the season.
There is some hope, however. The defense finally appeared to make progress last week, after inserting Marcus Ball and Maurice Chandler into the starting lineup, at the Bandit Safety and Field Corner positions, respectively. Chandler was solid in his first significant action of the season, and Ball earned PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance. Additionally, Gump Hayes probably played his best game of the season, after replacing and injured Kareem Orr. If Orr and Armand Perry (Perry missed some practice this week due to an unknown injury) are able to play this week, the secondary might continue to improve.
SECOND TINE TO VICTORY: WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
This one is pretty obvious – in a game where the offense may struggle to score points, and a below average pass defense is facing an excellent pass offense, ASU cannot afford to lose the turnover battle. In fact, they may need the defense to set up some scoring opportunities in order have a chance to win the game.
Defensively, this is something the Sun Devils are good at. They’ve been successful at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, and causing fumbles and interceptions, often in key moments of the game. The offense may have a more difficult time, however. While Manny Wilkins is not especially turnover-prone, he will be playing with limited mobility, if at all, and an inability to evade the pass rush could lead to turnovers. If Wilkins doesn’t play, Dillon Sterling-Cole will be making his first start as a true freshman, and is unlikely to play a relatively mistake-free game.
THIRD TINE TO VICTORY: RUN THE BALL
As we’ve discussed here previously, the ASU passing offense, especially with Manny Wilkins at the helm, is most successful when the threat of the run is present. This will be especially true this week, given the quarterback situation. Neither Wilkins nor Sterling-Cole will likely be able to stand in the pocket and pick apart a good Colorado defense play after play. However, after starting the season running the ball with success, the Sun Devils have struggled as of late, averaging only 2.7 yards/carry over the last three games.
If Wilkins is not healthy enough to be effective, don’t be surprised if ASU Offensive Coordinator Chip Lindsey gets creative with the run game. Colorado could see a heavy dose of the Sparky package, which could easily be expanded to include much more than just the power and counter plays we’ve seen up until now.
Despite being pretty heavy underdogs (13 points), if ASU is able to improve upon last week’s defensive performance, get some timely turnovers, and have success running the football, they could pull out a victory in Boulder. If they pull that off, they’ll likely share the PAC-12 South lead with Utah at 3-1, and be in a good position to win the division (they’ll face Utah at home in November), if they have a healthy quarterback moving forward.
For more preview information on Saturday’s game between ASU and Colorado, be sure to check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats 12-Pac.