TEMPE, Ariz. — In the topsy-turvy Pac-12, it’s impossible to tell which teams are riding momentum and which teams have lost their mojo. The picture changes on a weekly basis.
USC was riding high after a 42-14 win at Arizona State in which its offense was in total sync. With two weeks to prepare, however, it lost at Washington, 17-12, on Thursday.
UCLA was the toast of the conference after a 4-0 start pushed the Bruins to the No. 7 national ranking in the AP poll. Which brings us back to Arizona State, the team that knocked UCLA off that perch with a 38-23 win at the Rose Bowl last weekend.
The Sun Devils entered that game with one foot in the grave. They had already lost two games, their upcoming schedule was brutal and all those preseason expectations — including a No. 15 AP ranking — were being thrown back in fast-talking coach Todd Graham’s face.
“Obviously, our backs were against the wall,” Graham said. “Your character gets exposed when you face great adversity, and I think our guys showed what they’re made of.”
Can the Sun Devils (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) maintain this one-game wave? If ever the opponent were right for a two-game win streak, this would be the week. Colorado hasn’t won a road Pac-12 game in more than three years. While the conference’s coaches insist the Buffs are improved, wins over Colorado State (2-3), Massachusetts (1-3) and Nichols State (0-4) don’t offer much evidence.
The Buffaloes were competitive with Oregon last weekend, but they still lost 41-24 at home, and the jury is still out on whether this Ducks team is any good following a 62-20 home loss to Utah on Sept. 27 that marked the most points ever scored by an opponent in Oregon’s stadium.
Colorado (3-2) still appears to be the one team in the conference that can be taken for granted, especially on the road.
“This is our fifth year in the Pac-12 and I think the average score (against Oregon) was 41-5 at halftime so for us to be tied, 17-17, was a big step,” Buffaloes coach Mike MacIntyre said. “The sad thing is it’s 31-24 with eight and half minutes to go and we’ve got a chance to win and we just can’t stop them. We’ve got to be able to finish the game out against really good football teams.”
“We’ve just got to keep making strides. We’re better than we were before but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
The same can be said of the Sun Devils, who weren’t very god on offense in the first half against UCLA. The defense set the tone in that game, limiting the Bruins to seven rushing yards in the first half and keeping the game manageable until ASU finally found its offensive rhythm in the second half.
“The biggest thing that we preached this week, at the start of this week, was fundamentals,” quarterback Mike Bercovici said. “It’s basically going back to what we do best as football players, and that’s stay true to who we are.”
No one knows yet who the Sun Devils are, but there are a lot of Pac-12 fan bases in the same situation two games into conference play.
Colorado (3-2) at ASU (3-2)
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe
TV: Pac-12 Networks
3 KEYS TO VICTORY
Keep it simple: Colorado’s rushing defense is ranked 93rd in the nation, allowing 190.4 yards per game. The Buffs allow 4.62 yards per rush, the second worst mark in the Pac-12 to Oregon State’s 4.75. ASU hasn’t managed to untrack a ground game it thought would be its clear strength this season. Now would be a good time to get well.
Stop the run: Colorado is second to last in the conference in passing efficiency with a lowly 118.6 rating. The Buffs like to run the ball. The Buffs currently rank 19th in the nation on the ground and average 233 yards per game. They have 242 carries versus 166 passing attempts. Therein lies the key to an ASU win.
Be good on third down: Colorado is allowing opponents to convert just 37.6 percent of their third-down chances. ASU is converting just 39.3 percent of its chances. That will be a stat to watch in this game.
ASU — WR Cameron Smith (knee); OL Dillon Faamatau (knee); TE Dan Vear (unknown); WR Jalen Harvey (collarbone); FS Armand Perry (ankle); TE Grant Martinez (ankle/foot) are out. (ankle). Colorado — LB Addison Gillam (knee), LB Kenneth Olugbode (leg), OT Sam Kronshage (concussion), OT Jeromy Irwin (knee) and DL Tyler Henington (leg) are out.
3 QUICK FACTS
— Colorado has not won a road game in Pac-12 play since a 35-34 win at Washington State on Sept. 22, 2012. The Buffaloes have dropped 12 straight conference road games since then. Overall, Colorado is 2-16 in Pac-12 road games since joining the conference in 2011.
— Colorado is 0-7 all-time against the Sun Devils and has been outscored 245-85, with an average margin of victory of 43.3 points.
— With four catches against UCLA, senior receiver D.J. Foster moved into second in ASU career receptions with 189. Derek Hagen (2002-05) holds the record at 258 He also set a school record with a reception in his 45th straight game.
“I told them: ‘You control your fate. We have 21 practices. That’s it. And now we have 20. You better max out on every single one of them, every single day, every single meeting, (with) your film study and getting yourself prepared.'” — ASU coach Todd Graham to his troops on Tuesday as they chase a Pac-12 South title with little margin for error.