TEMPE, Ariz. — Asked about the challenge 2-2 Colorado presents this Saturday, Arizona State coach Todd Graham was quick to recall the last season’s contest between the two teams in Boulder.
“I don’t know if you remember the Colorado game last year,” Graham said. “It was a little stressful at halftime. I remember it.”
For those who have forgotten, ASU eventually pulled away for a 51-17 win, but the Sun Devils led just 20-17 after a mistake-filled first half.
Despite an 0-2 record in the Pac-12 this year, Colorado has Graham even more wary this season, as the Buffaloes are playing with renewed energy and confidence under first-year head coach Mike MacIntyre.
“I think he’s a heck of a football coach,” Graham said. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s got those guys playing extremely hard, there’s nothing cautious about them, and they’re extremely sound. I’m very, very impressed.”
MacIntyre came to Colorado after a quick turn around at San Jose State. The Spartans went 2-10 the year before MacIntyre left his position as defensive coordinator at Duke to take over. In MacIntyre’s first season, they went 1-12, then progressed to 5-7, and last year the team went 10-2 and reached its first bowl game since 2006.
In Colorado, MacIntyre took on another rebuilding project. Colorado had just four wins over the past two seasons, including one last year, and hadn’t finished .500 or better since 2005. The Buffaloes have struggled to find their footing in the Pac-12 since joining the conference in 2011.
MacIntyre could be facing a season comparable to his first at San Jose State, though Colorado (2-2, 0-2 Pac-12) has already doubled its win total from 2012 and stands a good chance of getting a third win against FCS team Charleston Southern next week. Colorado comes to Tempe on a two-game losing streak, with losses to Oregon State and Oregon by a combined 101-33.
MacIntyre sees great progress and steady spirit in his players, despite recent results.
“So far I’ve seen these guys step up and keep doing the right things,” MacIntyre said. “We could do some things better on the field at times, no doubt about that, but I haven’t seen them take a step back in preparedness, process and all that. And it’s all about the process. It doesn’t just happen.”
Graham has seen the progress, too. Watching film in preparation for Saturday’s game, Graham doesn’t see the team that ASU beat 51-17 last season.
“Huge difference,” Graham said. “They’re a lot more consistent about what they’re doing defensively, a lot fewer opportunities for big plays and stuff like that. Their structure is different.”
Graham also praised Colorado’s special teams improvement under MacIntyre. While it seems highly unlikely Colorado can pull off an upset at Sun Devil Stadium, they at least bring a few challenges to keep the Sun Devils on their toes.
Chief among those is redshirt junior receiver Paul Richardson. After missing 2012 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Richardson has emerged as one of the top receivers in the nation. He ranks second nationally with 155.3 receiving yards per game.
“They have as good of a receiver as you are going to play against,” Graham said.
Said MacIntyre: “He’s made a ton of plays for us, and really I think he can get open against anybody.”
With Richardson playing so well, first-year starting quarterback Connor Wood making strides and confidence up across the board, MacIntyre’s rebuilding process is off to a solid start. The breakthrough might not come this week or even this season, but MacIntyre is pleased with the steady progress taking place.
“We’ve improved,” MacIntyre said. “I say we’ve jumped from the valley to the foothills, and now we’re climbing the mountain. So now we’ve got to climb one of those mountains, and we’re in the process of doing that.”
‘SETTLED IN’ AT LINEBACKER
After a great deal of shuffling at the linebacker positions through fall camp and the first five games of the season, ASU appears ready to stick with a regular rotation.
Graham said Tuesday seniors Chris Young and Anthony Jones will switch places, with Young starting at spur and Jones at will. Young played spur last season before moving to will this year. Redshirt freshman Salamo Fiso and senior Steffon Martin will share duties at sam.
“I think we’ve settled in there,” Graham said. “We’ve just got to leave it where it’s at and do the best we can with it. You’ll see them switching some just for different packages and things like that.”
Graham said Monday ASU has been one man short of being solid at linebacker, which led to all the shuffling to try to find the right mix. He’s hoping now a little continuity will allow that one additional player to emerge.
HOOD EXPECTED BACK
Starting defensive tackle Jaxon Hood practiced Tuesday and is expected back against Colorado after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
Hood’s return should be a boost for a defensive line that struggled to get any pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees last week. The defense did not record a sack, the first time that has happened under Graham at ASU. EXTRA POINT
— Despite Damarious Randall’s apparent emergence at field safety, Graham still expects freshman Marcus Ball to play this season instead of redshirting. Ball was the projected starter before injuring his shoulder during fall camp, and Graham still believes he is one of ASU’s best 11 defensive players.