Friday, September 7, 2007

Know Thy Opponent: Arizona State Sun Devils (1-0)

The itinerary might show Tempe, Arizona, but the Buffs are making a stop in hell as they attempt to start the season 2-0. After all, what other locale is home to (Sun) Devils, and temperatures rise to hotter than 100 degrees at night? Still, it's hard to look at the home of ASU as hell because despite the heat, it doesn't seem like punishment to spend eternity in Tempe.

Now Lincoln, that’s a different story. Any chance the Bugeaters would change their name to reflect their surroundings? Oh wait, that’s right, their mascot is corn. Need I say anything more?

After breaking down the Buffs’ performance against CSU, it’s time to focus on the Arizona State Sun Devils. Led by new coach Dennis Erickson and veteran quarterback Rudy Carpenter, the Buffs will have their hands full if they are to return to Boulder with their first road victory of the young season and avenge last season’s 21-3 loss.

ASU Offense:


Unlike a year ago, the answer at quarterback is simple: Rudy Carpenter. With only two inexperienced backups – sophomore Danny Sullivan and redshirt frosh Dax Crum – the offense depends on the third year starter.

Now a junior, Carpenter looks to recapture the success of his freshman year and put behind him the inconsistencies that plagued him in 2006. As a freshman, Carpenter led the nation in passer efficiency, threw for 2,273 yards, 17 touchdowns and only two interceptions…in only half a season. Compare that to the 2006 season when Carpenter’s accuracy dropped from 68.4% to 55.4%. The other numbers were indicative of a decline as well, with Carpenter finishing the season with 2,523 yards, 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

For starters, Carpenter will be happy if he can remain healthy in 2007. Carpenter played several games with a fracture in his throwing hand in 2006. Although the quarterback downplayed the injury, it inevitably had some impact on his effectiveness. And despite the changes in the coaching staff, head coach Dennis Erickson and offensive coordinator Rich Olsen have claimed that the offense will not be dramatically different than the one run by Dirk Koetter, thus easing the transition for the signal-caller. Carpenter had a very effective spring and a good first game against San Jose St, in which he completed 14 of 20 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns. Carpenter has a strong arm, decent mobility and a quick release. Creating pressure will be the key to slowing down the passing game. With enough time, Carpenter is the type of quarterback that can have a huge day.

Running back:

This is the aspect that makes the 2007 Sun Devils so difficult to defend. While ASU has traditionally been viewed as a passing stalwart, the best player on the 2007 roster is senior running back Ryan Torain. How good is Torain? In Koetter’s pass happy attack, Torain rushed for 1,229 yards and 7 TDs, with a robust 5.5 yards per carry.

Torain, a junior college transfer, is big enough at 215 pounds to run between the tackles, and his 4.4-4.5 speed provides him with big-play ability. In the first game of the season against SJSU, Torain ran for 123 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns. His rushing effort paced a ground effort that gained 250 yards.

In last years’ game against the Buffs, Torain only gained 80 yards on 18 carries. If the Buffs are to win on Saturday, holding the Sun Devils running back to 80 yards would be a good start.

Behind Torain is junior Keegan Herring and senior Preston Jones, brother of CU linebacker Brad Jones. Herring is a speedy back who gained more yards rushing his freshman year than any other freshman back in school history. Against the Buffs in 2006, Herring led the team with 82 yards rushing on only nine carries. However, Herring is questionable for the game after suffering an injury in the season opener.

Wide Receivers:

You would think that wideout would be the strength of the Sun Devils offense, but a quick look at the depth chart and at last year’s stats would reveal a startling surprise: the wide receivers did not produce. In fact, despite their aerial success, the wide receivers, as individuals, didn’t have much more success than the much-maligned group from Colorado. Last year’s top receiver, current NFL tight end Zach Miller, only had 20 catches. That’s right. Twenty catches. Even Riar Geer bested those numbers by four catches.

That doesn’t mean that Carpenter is lacking in talented, athletic targets. The most talented of the bunch is Rudy Burgess, who has played wide receiver, cornerback and running back in his first three years. Burgess didn’t play much in the spring because of injury and missed the season opener with an ankle injury, but the dangerous playmaker is expected to make his season debut against Colorado.

Behind Burgess are a group of wide outs that possess the talent and size of a dangerous bunch. Michael Jones, a 6 foot 4 inch target (who also plays on the baseball team) is sure to create mismatches versus Colorado’s short corners. He led the Sun Devils in receiving in week 1.

Other tall receivers on the team include Nate Kimbrough (6-1, 15 catches in ’06), Chris McGaha (6-1, 16 catches in ’06) and Brandon Smith (6-2). Add to the mix Kyle Williams, a speedy sophomore who led the team with 21 yards per reception in the first game, and the Buffs will have their hands full.

At tight end, 6-5 tight end Brent Miller steps into Zach Miller’s large shoes. While Brent isn’t the same type of talent, Colorado’s struggles against Korry Sperry in the CSU game could lead to more looks for the ASU senior.

Offensive Line:

If you are looking for the strength of this years’ Arizona State squad then look no further. This unit has everything you could hope for: strength, size, experience and NFL-level talent. Four starters return from last year’s team, and the fifth starter – senior right tackle Zach Krula – missed all of last season but has eight starts in his career.

The unit is led by senior left tackle Brandon Rodd, who is a two-time All-Pac 10 honoree. While the line is big, strong and terrific in the run game, they do have a weakness. This same collection of players allowed 37 sacks in 2006. However, the team typically struggled against speedy defensive ends, which the Buffs appear to be lacking at this point. A key to the game will be Colorado’s ability to stop the run and force Arizona State into passing downs where the vulnerability of the offensive line can be exploited. If not, expect a heavy combination of runs and deep play action passes that will keep the Colorado defense on its heels all night.


Say hello to Craig Bray. You might remember Bray as the one-time defensive backs coach at Colorado. You know, the one that all the current players hate?

If the Buffs’ defensive backs will be able to exact revenge on their former coach, they will have to depend on the offense getting the best of Bray's unit.

The ASU defense got off to a great start in their 45-3 thrashing of the Spartans. The defense only allowed 115 yards and forced two turnovers. But, despite their success, this is still the ASU defense. The group as a whole should be improved over last year, but at the same time, size and depth are lacking at some positions.

Defensive Line

If Dan Hawkins ever felt like tearing out a page of Gary Barnett’s RTD offense (some may argue there was only one page in Shawn Watson’s playbook) this would be the week. The Sun Devils D-line is not what you would call big. Easy for me to say, but then again, I’m not the one lining up against them in the trenches.

The ASU D-Line only averages 265 pounds, with both ends playing at 245 pounds. While the size of the line isn't overwhelmingly small, the Colorado offensive line should have an advantage. Only two starters return on the line, and in Bray’s own preseason evaluation, “I was disappointed overall in terms of the athletes and speed at all positions," Bray said. "But they're great kids and really worked their tails off." Now this could be coach-speak or an honest evaluation. I’m guessing that it’s honest since this is the same collection of talent that allowed 330 yards per game in '06.

Still, the team should be confident after their success in the first week and their ability to shut down the Buffs last year. Although this is a new Colorado offense, expect the D-Line to show up expecting a repeat performance. Watch out for sophomore defensive end Dexter Davis, who led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks last season.


This is the position where the defensive has the most experience returning. In 2006, the Sun Devils went a little crazy and relied on three freshmen linebackers to play in all 13 games. What was crazy then looks brilliant now, as one of those freshmen (Travis Goethel) is now a starter, and the other two, Mike Nixon and Ryan McFoy, help out at all three positions. Starting at middle linebacker is JUCO transfer Morris Wooten, who won the NJCAA Defensive Player of the Year award. The other linebacker is senior Robert James.

Although the unit has experience, with six players returning who have played, the top two linebackers from last years’ team – Dale Robinson and Jamar Williams – are no longer available at the second level of the defense.

Defensive Backs:

The defensive backfield, Coach Bray’s “specialty,” is a bit of a mixed bag with questions at cornerback and answers at safety. The good news for Bray, three of his four starters are seniors, and the fourth player is a junior. The bad news: there is very little depth, and these are the same players that ranked 73rd in the nation against the pass in 2006. While the defensive backs didn’t have much to worry about last year in Boulder against Bernard Jackson, the Buffaloes offense looks different with Cody Hawkins at quarterback.

At the corner positions, seniors Chris Baloney and Justin Tryon are starters. Both have some size (6-1 and 5-10, respectively) and can run. However, each senior has produced little while on the field. Tyron did record 47 tackles and an interception in ’06, while Baloney had 2 INT’s in six games before his season ended due to injury. The cornerback situation was enough of a question that true freshman Omar Bolden got a look at the starting position during fall camp.

Whereas there is some question about productivity at the corner position, the safeties are a different animal. The group is led by senior Josh Barrett. Barrett, who stands at a solid 6-3, 230 pounds, led the team in tackles last year with 82. He is very good against the run and quick enough to help in coverage. On the opposite side of Barrett is junior Troy Nolan. Nolan surprisingly beat out Jeremy Paton, who was a star player during spring practices.

Special Teams:

One week after special teams propelled the Buffs to a victory against Colorado State, the oftentimes-overlooked unit could again play a key role against the Sun Devils. Arizona State is breaking in a new kicker and punter this season, and the team is also replacing their punt and kick returners.

Thomas Weber, a redshirt freshman, made his college football debut against SJSU. Weber made his only attempt, a 44 yard try, against the Spartans. Weber has a strong leg, but inaccuracy bothered him during spring and fall practices. At punter, senior Jonathan Johnson handles the duties. Johnson is not known for having a powerful leg, and only averaged 38.5 yards per punt in the first game.

Justin Tryon is the new kickoff specialist, and the aforementioned speedy Kyle Williams handles punt returns.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

After the Stampede...Week 1

It may only be one week, but the Buffs are undefeated. After last year’s suffering, I think that 1-0 looks pretty spectacular right now to all of the players and coaches. College football is oftentimes a game of confidence and momentum. Starting off with a victory can go a long way towards turning around the football program.

With the first game of the 2007 season now in the books, it’s time to take a quick look back at what went right, what went wrong and what was flat out surprising in Colorado’s 31-28 overtime victory against Colorado State.

The Offense:

The fact that the Buffs actually scored points should be considered a positive. But let’s be honest, last year’s offense left a lot to be desired. In this year’s game, the offense, behind Cody Hawkins, gained a similar amount of yardage in the first quarter to the entire output from last year’s game. Now that is what you call improvement. Everyone assumed the offense would be better, but now the expectations have been raised and fans, coaches and players will expect constant improvement on a week-to-week basis.

Hawk = A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E

Aggressive was the offenses mantra versus CSU. Although the offense didn’t display much too much of the deep vertical passing game that Coach Hawkins loves, the offense did spread the field and provide a multitude of different offensive sets. The play calling was original and Hawk coached the game like he wanted to win. It was nothing short of night and day compared to last season. Nothing personified Hawk's attitude more than going for a first down on fourth-and-four with the game on the line.

The offense was filled with gadgets and gimmicks, which did have some effectiveness. It’s hard not to salivate at the thought of Bernard Jackson lining up in the Buffs’ version on “Wildcat” package made popular by Arkansas. However, the package did have some effectiveness. And for those that look at the play as a simple "dive" scheme, the offensive line consistently used different blocking--from zone to pulling guards--to prevent the defense from cheating in their attack.

At the same time, it would be nice to see what happens if the Buffs just line up and play some smash mouth football. While some parts of the line are inexperienced, they are a big and strong group. With Demetrius Sumler looking to carry a greater load, it would be fun to see some good ‘ol fashion pound-it-down-their-throats football. If the running game is successful, that will open up the play action passes for some of the deep balls that we keep on hearing Dan Hawkins promise the fans. Who doesn’t want to see Patrick Williams or Kendrick Celestine show off their speed? Or maybe even let Terrence Wheatley unleash some revenge on former DBs coach Craig Bray.

Cody’s confidence

Many of this throws were impressive. And his stats verified a successful first start. And best of all, Cody Hawkins extended his winning streak to 60 games. But behind the numbers and the wins were the confidence and control that the younger Hawkins has over the team. For anyone who has conversed with, watched or seen Cody Hawkins operate, it doesn’t take much to know that he is a natural leader. In clutch situations, you feel comfortable with the ball in his hands. This was never more apparent than in the fourth quarter of the CSU game. Don’t forget that this was Cody Hawkins first ever college football game. He didn’t just win, he led a comeback victory in a rivalry game. On the Buffs’ last touchdown drive, Hawkins calmly completed three crucial third down conversions to allow the Buffs back into the game. There is no telling how the season will unfold, but Cody is undeniably a confident leader of the offense.

A Walk to Remember

Scotty Mcknight, remember thy name. The buzz over McKnight during fall camp had been encouraging, but no one could have predicted his breakout performance. The bottom line: 8 catches, 106 yards, 1 TD. Now that’s how to start a college career. Oh yeah, and don’t forget he’s a walk-on. That performance alone should earn him a scholarship for next year or free dinner's at the Hawkin's house until long as no one tells the NCAA.

Defense: The leaky damn
It’s only one game, but it’s hard to define Colorado’s defense. Bend-but-don’t-break could suffice, but a leaky damn seems more suitable for a unit that allowed 28 points yet still stood strong and prevented a flood. While there are several areas that need improvement, especially with explosive Arizona State on tap, there are reasons for encouragement.

Getting it done

Despite allowing more than 300 yards and 28 points, there were several standouts from the defense in week 1. While commonsense would argue Terrence Wheatley should get first mention, senior defensive captain Jordon Dizon had a monsterous game. How good was the boar hunter turned football player? Twenty-three tackles good. The senior leader was all over the field and played a big role in limited Kyle Bell to 3.4 yards per carry.

You can’t mention the run defense without emphasizing the play of George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas. The junior defensive tackles combined for 19 tackles and made life difficult for Bell and CSU QB Caleb Hanie.

And, of course we have to mention Mr. Wheatley. The fifth year senior demonstrated once again why the Buffs are so happy he’s back for another season. His interception in overtime (irrespective of his incredible special teams play) paved the way for Kevin Eberhart’s game-winning field goal.

Not getting it done

The defense continued a disturbing trend of being unable to stop the opposing team on third down. CSU finished the game 11 out of 19 on third down conversions. However, they did only complete one of three fourth downs they attempted in the game.

The biggest concern match-up wise was Brad Jones inability to slow down CSU tight end Kory Sperry. Sperry did his best Antonio Gates impersonation by blowing up with eight catches for 103 yards and three touchdowns. Although the Rams were unable to get Sperry the ball in the fourth quarter, he haunted Jones for the entire game. Considering that Jones is one of the Buffs quickest linebackers, this could be an area of concern throughout the season.

Another problem was the overall lack of pressure from the Buffs. The Buffs ended up with four sack, with 1.5 sacks each coming from Hypolite and Maurice Lucas, but there were many occasions were Rams’ receivers came open only after Hanie had all day to sit in the pocket and find one of his targets. Some of this can be contributed for the passive play calling from defensive coordinator Ron Collins. While the Buffs did show several corner and safety blitzes throughout the game, those moves seemed geared to slow down the run more than create a tenacious pass rush. The Buffs frequently used zone defenses on third and long situations—a plan that backfired more than once. If the Buffs are to beat the Sun Devils, much more of a pass rush will be needed to alter the timing and comfort level of starting quarterback Rudy Carpenter.

The Big Surprise
Believe it or not, the defensive backfield did not play as bad as the stats may seem. Of Hanie’s 20 completions, only 9 were caught by receivers (five of which were caught by Johnny Walker). In total, receivers only caught 100 yards worth of total offense. That's right: only 100 yards. The majority of the yards and catches were made by the tight ends and running backs, which typically fall on the responsibility of the linebackers. When you couple that with the amount of time Hanie had on several pass attempts, the defensive backfield doesn’t look so bad.

This is not to say that the DB’s don’t have work to do. Arizona State possesses a much more potent offense that CSU. And CSU ran the ball consistently when it appeared that the passing game was more successful. Still, there is reason to hope that the coverage will improve from last years’ struggles.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

CU Victory is "Special"

Say what you will about Dan Hawkins, but one thing is certain—the man has a way of making season-opening games interesting.

One year after watching Colorado not show up to their home opener against Montana State (which is not as bad as Michigan’s loss…but that’s another story), Colorado came back from an 11-point deficit to defeat Colorado State 31-28 in the first-ever overtime game between the two teams.

The areas of improvement were numerous for the Buffaloes. While Cody Hawkins and the offense showed that this year will be different than 2006, the game was won for the Buffs in an unexpected area:

Special teams.

The one area that had as much, if not more, concern than any one area of the Buffaloes’ squad came to play on Saturday. Sure there were some miscues—a missed field goal and a bizarre quasi onside kick that turned into a turnover. But the return team and the kicking of Kevin Eberhart played a very significant role in the victory by the Buffs.

Let’s start with Eberhart. No one on the Buffs had bigger shoes to fill. Sure Cody Hawkins was the starting quarterback, but Eberhart was replacing the most popular player from last years’ team in Mason Crosby. Eberhart not only sent the game into overtime, but he also calmly kicked the game winner in overtime after Terrence Wheatley’s interception.

Speaking of the man teammates call T-Wheat, the speedster made a strong case to remain as a kick returner. Wheatley averaged a mere 45 yards per kick return in three attempts, including a 68-yard return that resulted in Eberhart’s only missed field goal. While Wheatley did not start the game returning kicks, the hamstring injury to running back Hugh Charles opened the door for Wheatley to show off his wheels. If betting were legal, I’d put the house on Wheatley continuing to moonlight as Colorado’s own version of Devin Hester.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget about little Chase McBride. The wide receiver might not dunk a basketball anytime soon or even see many passes thrown his way, but the surprise replacement for incumbent Stephone Robinson averaged nearly 21 yards per punt return, including a clutch 43-yard return that set up the game tying field goal. Maybe most importantly, there were no bobbles or fumbled punts.

It’s only one game but a successful season demands solid play from all three facets of a football game: offense, defense and special teams.

While several areas could use improvement in week 2, the Buffs now find themselves at 1-0, and the victory against the Rams occurred in part because the team was special.