Their season opening 31-28 come-from-behind overtime victory over Colorado State helped build confidence and kept redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Hawkins' personal 60-game win streak intact, but the Colorado Buffaloes figure to get a much bigger test on Saturday, when they travel to Tempe for a contest with Arizona State.
How much as really changed since the Sun Devils defeated the Buffaloes 21-3 in an early-season game at Boulder last September, the second loss of what would become a 2-10 season under then first-year coach Dan Hawkins?
We're about to find out.
Last year, the Buffaloes ranked 102nd in total offense, averaging 291.4 yards per game, with a passing game (116th) that was largely inept, totaling just 1,422 yards via the air for the season. Colorado had 254 passing attempts vs. 460 running plays, a big discrepancy and an even bigger problem.
A team that had no capable quarterback a season ago now has Hawkins, a player who hasn't lost a game he started since he was in sixth grade.
Against Colorado State, the coach's son completed 18-of-31 attempts for 201 yards and two touchdowns against one interception. It was a better showing than the team had from the position in any of its 12 games last season, and the team had more passing attempts than run plays.
Much of Hawkins' passing yards went to fellow redshirt freshman Scotty McKnight, who hauled in eight catches for 106 yards and one touchdown. Top returning receiver Patrick Williams had five catches for 85 yards. No other player had more than one catch in the opener for Colorado.
The Buffaloes do have a very solid group of tight ends, however, led by sophomore Riar Greer, who led the team in receiving last season with 261 yards and three touchdowns.
On the ground, the Buffaloes were expected to be buoyed by Hugh Charles, who had a team-leading 779 yards on the ground last season, but Charles suffered a hamstring strain early in the season opener, clearing the way for talented freshman Demetrius Sumler to get the majority of the carries.
Sumler, at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, has nice size and burst. He had 16 carries for 85 yards and one touchdown versus Colorado State for an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
Colorado's newfound balance on offense must be respected, and ASU coach Dennis Erickson said that Cody Hawkins is the key to what the Buffaloes are going to be able to accomplish on offense this season.
"He knows what he's doing and understands that offense," Erickson said. "He's probably been studying it since he was about six years old."
The Sun Devils hardly blitzed San Jose State in the opener, but we expect that won't be the case in this game. Look for linebacker Robert James to become more of a factor off the edge, a week after he earned Defensive Player of the Week Honors by basically staying in position, making tackles and a key interception.
We also anticipate ASU will make it a priority to stop the run against Colorado, thus forcing the diminutive 5-foot-11 Hawkins to beat the team through the air, with a receiving corps that performed reasonably well against Colorado State, but has been quite mediocre in recent years.
Defensively, the Buffaloes were very solid last season, particularly against the run, and they limited Colorado State to just 2.8 yards per rushing attempt last Saturday, on 56 carries.
It is here where they'll face their biggest and most important test against the Sun Devils, who feature one of the nation's top senior running backs, Ryan Torain, and a veteran offensive line that returns five starters.
Colorado returns both its starting defensive tackles, junior George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolan, a duo that combined for 11 tackles and one sack against Colorado State. The pair anchor a defensive front that lost end Abraham Wright and his 11.5 sacks from last season due to exhausted eligibility. Maurice Lucas seemed to pick up where Wright left off, with eight tackles and two sacks.
While the defense is strong up front, its linebacker corps may be its best attribute. Senior Jordan Dizon, a 6-foot, 225-pounder, had 22 tackles and a forced fumble against the Rams, after totaling 137 tackles last season. Juniors R.J. Brown and Brad Jones are also capable. Sophomore Michael Spili will miss at least two more games due to a suspension for his role in a brawl.
In the secondary, Colorado is led by 5-foot-10 senior cornerback Terrence Wheatley, who had five interceptions and 11 pass breakups last season. Wheatley has received a fair amount of attention this week for comments made about ASU defensive coordinator Craig Bray, who previously coached for two seasons at Colorado. Wheatley was dismissive of what he perceived to be Bray's forwardness with media and propensity to be overly critical.
The team also appears to have a decent pair of starting safeties in juniors Ryan Walters, a returning starter, and Daniel Dykes, who collected eight tackles last week.
If the Buffaloes crowd the defensive front in an effort to stop Torain and the other ASU rushers, it could open opportunities for quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who was no doubt encouraged by Colorado State quarterback Caleb Hanie's ability to complete 20-of-27 throws last Saturday.
On special teams, Colorado has been forced to replace former All-American kicker Mason Crosby, but senior Kevin Eberhart is considered to be a solid replacement. He made three of four field goal attempts versus the Rams. Punter Matt DiLallo returns after averaging 43.7 yards per punt last season.
The Sun Devils are going to have to prevent Wheatley from beating them in the return game. Last week he broke off a 68-yard kickoff return. Punt returner Chase McBride, also a senior, had three returns for 21 yards last week.
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