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Brooks: Buffs Ponder Ways To Slow Down Sun Devils

Sep 9, 2014

BOULDER – The Colorado Buffaloes exited Week 1 of their 2014 schedule with a mandate to improve their run defense. They enter Week 3 believing they’re better, but their third opponent will let them know – and fast – how much better they might be.

The Buffs face No. 16 Arizona State on Saturday night in their 2014 home opener as well as their Pac-12 Conference opener (8 p.m., Folsom Field, ESPNU). And saying the Sun Devils can run a little bit is akin to saying The Beatles sold a few records.

Averaging 345 yards a game, ASU leads the Pac-12 in rushing, with junior tailback D.J. Foster, at 181. 5 yards a game, also checking in as the conference’s top ground gainer. Foster ranks fifth nationally in rushing, with the Sun Devils occupying the same spot in the team rushing category.

Anyone who has spent time around a defensive coordinator knows he’s probably carrying a card in his wallet that reads, “Stop the run first.” That’s what CU hoped to do in its 31-17 season-opening loss to Colorado State, but the Buffs came up short on stops of any kind. The Rams ripped them for 266 rushing yards – the bulk of them in the second half – and a pair of touchdowns.

Last weekend in Foxboro, Mass., Massachusetts ran for 105 yards and two scores, but CU rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and won 41-38. Still, the Buffs don’t have to be convinced that UMass and ASU are worlds apart in their offensive capabilities – particularly the running games and their comparative speed.  

“It’s going to be way faster . . . the Pac-12 is all about speed and ASU, that’s one thing they’ve got,” said freshman defensive tackle Eddy Lopez, who played for the first time at the collegiate level against the Minutemen. “They play at a fast tempo and we’re already practicing play after play after play. The speed’s going to be different but I think I can adjust to it.”

Foster, a 5-11, 205-pounder, carried only six times for 18 yards in ASU’s 54-13 beat down of CU last season. But then, he wasn’t really needed. The Sun Devils got 196 rushing yards from three other tailbacks – Marion Grice accounted for 88 yards while ASU was taking a 47-6 first-half lead – and 36 yards from quarterback Taylor Kelly. They finished with 276 yards rushing and 532 in total offense.

Grice, Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong (three catches, 109 yards, 1 TD vs. the Buffs) didn’t play in the second half, and of that trio only Grice is missing this season.

Foster ran for a career-best 216 yards in ASU’s 58-23 romp over New Mexico last weekend and had 147 in the previous week’s 45-14 bashing of Weber State. The Sun Devils also make use of Foster’s hands: he was second on the team last season in receiving (63 catches, 653 yards) and this season has caught seven passes for 80 yards – second only to Strong’s 13 for 189.

At his weekly media conference Tuesday, CU coach Mike MacIntyre called Foster “a special player; they give him the ball in a lot of different situations. He’s fast when he gets on the edge, then he’s a good cutback runner, too. We’re working on that; we’ve got to take the right angles (to tackle him).”

One of Foster’s chief assets is making yards after contact, but he’s also explosive. Of his 363 rushing yards, 60 percent have been gained after a first hit, but he’s tied for the national lead in most rushes of 20-plus yards (five) and most rushes of 30-plus and 40-plus yards (three each). Put in perspective, Grice had only two 30-yard runs last season and one 40-yarder.

"That's just D.J.'s personality," ASU running backs coach Bo Graham said. “Back when he was a true freshman in his first couple games, he was finishing runs on the sidelines, refusing to go out of bounds. He's just a great competitor. There are just certain guys who flip a switch and on game days they're just a little better. He's a guy that shows up."

Conceding that slowing ASU’s run game is a major challenge, CU linebacker Addison Gillam nonetheless says the Buffs run defense has improved in “gap control, particularly with the D-linemen and linebackers staying with their responsibilities.

“But we know they’ve got a strong running game. We had trouble with it last year, with their running game and their option pass plays. It’s going to be hard.”

MacIntyre said the defensive line “played really well last week,” improving in technique, rushing the passer and not letting blockers reach CU’s linebackers. Against CSU, he added, the D-line was “hit and miss (and) they knew it. They were disappointed in it. We corrected a few things, they corrected a few things and I think they’ll keep playing really well . . . I was really pleased with the way they played last week and I think they understand it and will play well the rest of the year.”

Gillam remains CU’s leading tackler (22 total, 17 unassisted) but said a hyperextended elbow suffered in August camp bothered him in the opener: “I couldn’t make plays.” Still, he made 15 solo tackles against CSU and but only two against UMass. He says his elbow is improving and that he’s gained back four of seven pounds lost during a training camp sickness.

In the second half of the win against UMass, MacIntyre said his defense “pretty much shut them down,” with the exception of one late Minutemen drive that was revitalized by four different penalties. MacIntyre said tackling – an issue against CSU – had improved as well as the “run fits.”

“We’re really young on defense, but we’ve got guys coming into their own,” MacIntyre said, alluding to the four sophomores, one true freshman and one redshirt freshman who opened last weekend on defense.

“But the team we’re about to play is big, powerful and fast,” MacIntyre added. “We have to play much better on defense and match their intensity.”

“I think we came out a little slow . . . definitely came out slow in that first game,” Gillam added. “But, I can start to see this last week, we’re actually starting to come together and play together a lot better than what we have been and what we did last year. So, I think we may be a little behind just as far as, I thought we were going to come out and be strong right away. But I think, just getting used to the games is what we need to do. For now, it’s coming along.”

SPRUCE MAKING AN EARLY MARK

After two games, CU junior Nelson Spruce is the Pac-12’s leading receiver in yards per game. He’s averaging 124.5 and has a league-best four touchdown receptions. Spruce’s 17 catches trail Washington State’s Vince Mayle, who has 20.

Against UMass, Spruce made 10 receptions, tying a career-best first established in his freshman season against Utah. His 145 receiving yards were a career high, topping his 140-yard effort last season against California. He has caught a pair of TD passes in CU’s first two games, with his 70-yarder last weekend the longest of his career.

Quarterback Sefo Liufau called the reliable Spruce his “safety blanket. He’s that guy; he’s definitely that for this team now . . . he’s got sure hands and runs great routes.”

Spruce called being a statistical leader in the conference “nice, but we’ve been executing on offense and that’s allowed me to do my thing. But it’s still early; there’s a lot of work to be done.”

In the first two games, Spruce hasn’t seen any double coverage. He said it “remains to be seen” whether he might be doubled when Pac-12 play opens. Opponents frequently double-covered Paul Richardson last season, opening up receiving possibilities for Spruce.

Now, Spruce is hopeful that the emergence of freshman Shay Fields and redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo, along with productivity from seniors D.D. Goodson and Tyler McCulloch, will make the Buffs more of a multi-receiver threat than they’ve been in the past.

“I don’t think we’re a team you can double cover,” Spruce said.

NOTABLE

MacIntyre said his players are excited about the prospect of finally returning to their home field, as well as playing in a stadium being renovated. Folsom Field’s north end zone and northeast corner have undergone extensive renovation as part of a $150 million-plus facilities improvement project. Construction work has been in overdrive to finish seating in the north end zone and northeast corner for Saturday night’s home opener. “You look outside . . . they’re going to have that done,” MacIntyre said at Tuesday’s media conference . . . . Spruce said the renovation and the home opener being at night “has made us a little more excited,” but quarterback Sefo Liufau noted the kickoff time “is neither here nor there . . . if it’s a big game you’ll be up for it.” . . . .  CU has played four true freshmen – defensive end Christian Shaver, defensive back Evan White, Lopez and Fields – in its first two games. Asked if any more first-year players would be used this weekend, MacIntyre answered, “I don’t know . . . there are still some guys we’re working with.” . . . . Only one injury – Shaver with an ankle sprain – was reported after the UMass game. MacIntyre said he was “waiting to see” if all of his players will be back in practice later this week, “but it looked like they will be.”

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU