TEMPE, Ariz. — With what could be one of the biggest games in Arizona State’s recent history one week away, it’s easy to forget the Sun Devils have to play Colorado first.
The promotional campaign for ASU’s annual “blackout” game against Oregon on Oct. 18 began shortly after ASU beat California at Memorial Stadium for the first time since 1997.
The Sun Devils, however, have made it explicitly clear this week they won’t be caught looking ahead when they face the Buffaloes on Thursday night ibn Boulder, Colo.
“We’re not looking past them at all,” junior safety Alden Darby said. “We’re preparing for them, like I’ve said, as if we’re preparing for USC or Oregon. We’re taking them seriously. Anybody can beat anybody in college football.”
Colorado (1-4, 1-1 Pac-12) is no doubt an underdog. The Buffaloes opened the season with three straight losses, to Colorado State, Sacramento State (an FCS opponent) and Fresno State (69-14). They edged Washington State 35-34 in their Pac-12 opener before losing at home to UCLA 42-14 and heading into their bye week.
That bye week, ASU coach Todd Graham said, gave Colorado a chance to better prepare for the Sun Devils and recharge before the second half of the season.
“I think the biggest thing is knowing that they have a bunch of guys back that have been hurt,” Graham said. “They’re going to be at full strength. They’re going to be at home.
“Every team is going to be their best at home, so when you go in there, as a team, there has to be a great focus, a great mental focus about what you are doing.”
Graham said he has harped this week on not overlooking Colorado and coming out with the necessary intensity for a road game, one that’s expected to be in front of a sellout crowd.
He has been pleased with his players’ reaction. Just as much, Graham has preached fundamentals this week, perhaps tipping his hand just a bit that ASU is sharpening those for the tougher tests ahead.
From a matchup standpoint, Arizona State has essentially every advantage over Colorado. The Sun Devils’ conference-best scoring defense (13.6 points allowed per game) should have little trouble shutting down Colorado’s conference-worst scoring offense (21.6 points per game).
Sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly and an ASU offense averaging 456.2 yards per game should bowl over a defense giving up 474.4 per game.
The trends continue from there — sacks, rushing, turnovers, etc. — but that the Sun Devils holds countless advantages over Colorado should come as no surprise. The Buffaloes are still finding their footing while breaking in a young roster in their second season of Pac-12 competition.
This week Colorado could be without its top rusher, freshman Christian Powell, who suffered a hip bruise in Colorado’s last game.
Quarterback Jordan Webb triggers the Colorado attack, and Graham is impressed with what he’s seen of him.
“I like their quarterback,” Graham said. “He’s the guy we spent a lot of time on, and I think he’s a very smooth operator. He gives them an opportunity.”
Colorado Coach Jon Embree is acutely aware of the challenge Webb faces in ASU’s powerful defensive line, which has helped ASU tally 21 sacks, and particularly defensive tackle Will Sutton, who has tormented opponents’ offensive lines.
“He needs to go ahead and start getting paid,” second-year Colorado coach Jon Embree joked. “He’s the best (defensive) lineman by far in our conference. I love the kid’s motor and passion. … He’s a very good player. We’re going to have to find answers for him.”
Beyond any statistics or matchups, though, ASU knows upsets happen in college football, and Graham earlier this week cited unranked North Carolina State’s upset of then No. 3 Florida State last Saturday.
“One thing about Division I ball: You can’t just shut down because a team is not so good,” senior cornerback Deveron Carr said. “Like they say, Thursday nights on ESPN, bad things happen all the time. If you go in there and you lack mental preparation and you lack focus out here at practice, on that Thursday you will lose.”
If the focus remains intact for four quarters, ASU should find itself off to a 5-1 start — as it did a year ago. At least theoretically, this game gives ASU an opportunity to fine-tune itself before tackling the toughest part of its schedule — home games with No. 2 Oregon and UCLA and road games against No. 10 Oregon State and No. 11 USC.