ASU vs. Colorado game preview

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Colorado Buffaloes (2-2, 0-2) vs. Arizona State Sun Devils (3-2, 1-1)

Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. PST/ 10:00 p.m. EST

Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Point Spread: ASU -25

TV/Radio: Pac-12 Network/620 AM

Weather Forecast: Clear, upper 70s, light winds

Series History: ASU leads 4-0, with last year's meeting in Boulder resulting in a 51-17 Sun Devil win.

Fun Fact of the Week: ASU running back Marion Grice leads the nation in scoring with 15.6 points-per-game, which is more than seven FBS teams average for the season.

ASU on Offense: Perhaps no element of Sun Devil football enjoys a greater home field advantage than the offense. Under Todd Graham, ASU averages 44 points-per-game, while that figure drops to 34 away from home (and just over 30 if only regular season games are counted).

On paper, this game figures to help that first statistic. ASU enters the game with the nation's No. 9 passing offense and 22nd ranked overall attack, while Colorado has the nation's 115th ranked defense. 

All eyes will be on the ASU offensive line after their dismal performance against Notre Dame. When they give quarterback Taylor Kelly time, the Sun Devils have the ability to move the ball on most any defense. Thankfully for ASU, Colorado doesn't generate much pressure from their front seven.

CU's best weapon is defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe, and his battle with left tackle Evan Finkenberg will be key. The rest of the CU front seven has done little in the way of making plays behind the line of scrimmage, totaling 11 tackles-for-loss while Uzo-Diribe has six.

This should allow Kelly to have yet another big game. Already with 300 yards or more in five straight games, Kelly is in line for another high-yardage effort as he continues to develop an unstoppable rapport with wide receiver Jaelen Strong. With four straight 100-yard games, Strong is becoming one of the nation's elite, and the CU secondary—ranked 121st in the nation against the pass—will be hard pressed to stop him. This should also provide another chance for the ASU wide receivers other than Strong to step up, as the group has largely struggled for the second straight year. Look for a larger role for freshman speedster Cameron Smith in place for the disappointing Rick Smith.

ASU will also continue their tight ends. Colorado likes to play man coverage against the position, but the athleticism of Chris Coyle and De'Marieya Nelson should result in opportunities on intermediate routes.

While ASU's transition into a passing team continues, they still have a dynamic backfield that should be in line for a big day against Colorado's 4-3 defense.

Marion Grice has yet to hit 85 yards rushing this year as the lead back, but his 13 total touchdowns lead the nation. D.J. Foster has played mostly wide receiver and is coming off a career-best nine receptions, but should see more time as a runner this week. Both players are explosive in the run and passing games, and will have room to run on CU. Freshman middle linebacker Addison Gillam is the team's top second-level player, and is averaging nearly 13 tackles per game. Facing Grice and Foster, he may easily eclipse that Saturday.

If ASU can avoid any costly mistakes and turnovers, they will have the edge over Colorado in every area on the field. Look for another big day by the Kelly-to-Strong connection, with Grice and Foster each finding the endzone. This should be a 40-point or more night by the Sun Devils.

Key Match-ups:

  • WR Jaelen Strong vs. CB Greg Henderson: Strong's rise up the national charts continues, and Henderson will be the next in a growing line of corners to try and stop him.
  • RB Marion Grice vs. LB Addison Gilliam: Gilliam has emerged as one of the nation's top tackling machines, and he will be seeing a lot of Grice on Saturday.
  • LT Evan Finkenberg vs. DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe: Uzo-Diribe represents the only real pass rushing threat, so if Finkenberg can keep him in check, it should be a big night for Kelly.

ASU on Defense: After a sluggish few weeks, this match-up may be just what the Sun Devil defense needs, provided they can shut down one key Buffalo.

Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson has reclaimed his place as one of the nation's top playmakers. He is far and away CU's top weapon, and he ranks second in the nation with over 155 receiving yards per game. He'll draw the coverage of ASU's top corner Osahon Irabor, who will also get help deep from the safeties. 

If ASU can limit Richardson's damage, it will bode very well for a struggling secondary. Nelson Spruce is the team's No. 2, and he is a capable, if unspectacular, player with good speed and hands. At 6-foot-5, Tyler McCulloch is a match-up problem from the slot, but he rarely gets downfield. Tight ends Kyle Slavin and Scott Fernandez don't see many passes thrown their way (six catches combined), but have good size and hands.

Quarterback Connor Wood leads the Buffalo offense, and has yet to play up to the lofty expectations he had as a recruit. Taking over the job during the spring when Jordan Webb hurt his knee, Wood has thrown for 1,092 yards and eight touchdowns, but is completing just 54.4 percent of his passes with six interceptions. Wood is not a running threat, but has a strong arm. He is the type of passer that can really struggle if put under pressure, and knocking him around will be a primary objective for ASU.

Getting to Wood may seem easy by comparison to the offensive lines ASU has faced in recent weeks. The Buffaloes have struggled up front on the line, and with defensive Jaxon Hood returning from injury, this could be the first game all year in which the vaunted Sun Devil pass rush led by Carl Bradford and Will Sutton. The battle between center Gus Handler and Sutton will be a key one to watch.

Colorado ranks just 115th in the nation in rushing, partially due to the struggles along the line, but they have been better of late. Converted fullback Christian Powell is the lead back, a 230-pound grinder who has just enough speed to get yards in a hurry if he can get in space. The speedy Tony Jones has struggled this year as a change of pace, so freshman Michael Adkins will see some significant time on Saturday. Adkins has been a force as a runner and receiver over the last two weeks, so ASU will need to watch out for him.

The return of Hood to the middle of the line should hopefully solidify a run defense that continues their season-long struggles. The Sun Devil linebacking corps had a poor effort against Notre Dame, missing far too many tackles and taking bad angles on a number of big plays.

All told, this is a battle that ASU should dominate. As long as the secondary can focus on and mitigate Richardson's damage, the schematic and talent advantages possessed by the Sun Devils elsewhere on the field should make sustained Colorado drives a rarity.

Key Match-ups:

  • CB Osahon Irabor vs. WR Paul Richardson: Richardson is one of the elite playmakers in the nation, and far and away CU's best weapon. Irabor will need a strong effort to limit Richardson's damage.
  • LB Chris Young vs. RB Christian Powell: The Buffaloes' run game is starting to get on track, and is lead by the 230-pound Powell. Young will be essential is stopping CU's power running.
  • ASU's Pass Rush vs. Colorado's Offensive Line: The Sun Devils blitz as much as any team in the nation, but had nothing to show for it last week, failing to get a single sack. They hope to rebound against a struggling CU line.

Special Teams: The ASU punting game continues to be a disaster. The team ranks dead last in the FBS with a paltry 27.7-yard net average. Freshman Matt Haack has looked better in practice and will get the call again this week. Fellow freshman Zane Gonzalez has made four straight field goals and seems to be settling into the role. In the return game, Grice has yet to have an explosive return, while there may be a change on punts after Robert Nelson made two major errors against the Irish.

CU has a potent kickoff return game led by Marques Mosley, who is averaging over 27 yards per return, while Spruce handles punts. The Buffaloes are well served in the kicking game, with Will Oliver being one of the Pac-12's best kickers. He has made nine of 10 on the year, including one from 52. Darragh O'Neill is a very capable punter, averaging over 41 yards per kick with 11 of his 29 kicks pinned inside the 20.

ASU's To Do List:

  • Start strong and maintain pressure
  • Put CU away early
  • Don't commit turnovers
  • Regain confidence in the pass rush

What It All Means: The Sun Devils have the talent edge in every area in this game, but will they be able to shake off the disappointment from last week? ASU is often their own worst enemy, but they are a much different, and better, team at home. This is a good "get well" game to put things back on track before next week's huge match-up against Washington. As long as ASU doesn't kill themselves with turnovers, this  should be a blowout win.

Prediction: ASU wins 59-14