Coach Mike MacIntyre and his Colorado Buffaloes might prefer not to measure progress in defeat, but after Saturday night’s 38-24 loss to No. 16 Arizona State they might be forced to change their minds.
The Buffs (1-2, 0-1) spotted the undefeated Sun Devils (3-0, 1-0) a 17-0 lead before pulling to within 17-14 only to have a disastrous second-quarter fumble snuff their momentum and allow the visitors to begin pulling away.
CU never got that close again and ASU opened a 21-point third-quarter lead en route to defeating the Buffs for the sixth consecutive time, including four wins since CU joined the Pac-12 Conference. In all, the Buffs suffered three turnovers – the lost fumble by running back Michael Adkins and two interceptions by quarterback Sefo Liufau.
“Wow, that really hurts, really hurts,” MacIntyre said. “We can’t turn the ball over, but our kids kept fighting . . . we’re definitely improving. We’re playing faster, playing harder, tackling better . . . I think we’re improving, we’ve got a long way to go but I think we’re making strides. But we have to go get it done. There are a lot of great teams in our league.”
ASU coach Todd Graham praised the Buffs. He called MacIntyre “a tremendous football coach" and said CU "showed great heart and determination. They played extremely hard. We were rolling along there; we thought we would make it 21-0 but those guys were fighting and scratching. You can tell their coach has a lot of character and heart.”
After a punchless first quarter, the Buffs wound up outgaining the Sun Devils 545-426 in total offense and 28-18 in first downs. CU outrushed ASU 232-223, with the Buffs’ yardage a season high, and had a 313-203 advantage in passing.
But turnovers negated CU’s statistical advantages and forced the Buffs to play catchup for the entire night.
“We should have won that game, point blank,” Liufau said. “Too many turnovers, too many mistakes . . . we should have beat that team, point blank.”
Liufau said the Buffs “don’t want moral victories. That’s for people who want to be mediocre . . . the guys fought all game; you can’t take that away from us.”
MacIntyre called Adkins’ fumble at CU’s 10-yard line “huge, huge, huge . . . it’s the first one that Michael has had since he’s been here.” ASU parlayed the turnover into a quick touchdown, regained its 10-point advantage and quieted a raucous CU crowd.
Liufau finished 31-of-46 passing for 278 yards, three touchdowns and the two interceptions. Two of his scoring tosses went to Nelson Spruce, who now has caught a pair of TD passes in each of the season’s first three games. Spruce finished with a game-best seven catches for 97 yards, while freshman Shay Fields caught seven balls for 97 yards and his second collegiate score.
In the running game, Christian Powell led the Buffs with 11 carries for 118 yards – a season-best for CU. But the game’s top runner was ASU’s D.J. Foster, the Pac-12’s leading rusher with a 181.5 yard average. CU held him to 147 and a TD while keeping the Sun Devils 122 yards below their conference-leading average (345).
Still, with quarterback Taylor Kelly adding 70 rushing yards on six carries – including a 50-yard score that gave ASU its 21-point third-quarter lead – the Sun Devils had enough offensive punch to keep the Buffs in catchup mode. Kelly left the game late in the third quarter with a foot injury and was replaced in the fourth by Mike Bercovici.
Kelly’s night ended with him completing 13 of 21 passes for 195 yards and three TDs. One of them was a 5-yarder to Foster, who finished with four catches for 59 yards, giving him 206 yards in total offense.
The Buffs trailed 24-14 at the half – worlds away from their 47-6 halftime deficit last season in Tempe – but the score might have been different had it not been for a pair of turnovers that the Sun Devils converted into touchdowns.
ASU dominated the first quarter, outgaining CU 222-22 in total yards, piling up 11 first downs to the host team’s one and jumping ahead 14-0. The Sun Devils got their early touchdowns on a 15-yard run by Foster on ASU’s first possession and a 38-yard pass from Kelly to Kalen Ballage that was set up by defensive back Jordan Simone’s interception of Liufau.
His pass, intended for an open Fields, floated and forced Fields to slow down. That gave Simone time to catch up, cut in front of Fields and make the pick. It was Liufau’s second interception of the season, with another coming.
CU didn’t get its initial first down until 3:10 remained in the opening quarter and exited the period trailing 14-0, with Phillip Lindsay’s 46-yard kickoff return as its lone highlight.
Three plays into the second quarter, Zane Gonzalez sent ASU ahead 17-0 with a 31-yard field goal – and CU fans could be forgiven for thinking they’d seen this script before.
But they hadn’t.
After Gonzalez’s kick, Liufau drove the Buffs 77 yards in 10 plays, hitting Fields with a 4-yard pass for the TD. Will Oliver’s PAT brought CU to 17-7 and what had bordered on a being a listless student section sprang to life.
The Buffs defense took the cue, forcing the Sun Devils into their first three-and-out of the night. And Liufau & Co. took a cue from that defensive stand, fashioning an eight-play, 77-yard drive that Liufau capped with a 15-yard TD pass to Spruce – his fifth scoring catch of the season.
When Oliver kicked the extra point, CU had crept to 17-14 – and Blackout Night at Folsom was boiling over.
Once again, the Buffs defense stood strong and sent the Sun Devils back to the sideline with a second consecutive three-and-out. But after Matt Haack’s 57-yard punt was downed at the CU 10-yard line, the Buffs were bludgeoned by their second turnover.
This one was Adkins’ fumble, and it was recovered by linebacker D.J. Calhoun at the CU 9-yard line. Three plays later, Kelly and Foster teamed for a 5-yard TD pass. With Gonzalez’s PAT, ASU restored its 10-point lead (24-14), and the first half ended that way.
After their inept first quarter, the Buffs found life in the second, holding the Sun Devils to 20 yards of total offense while gaining 171 and pulling themselves back into the game with a half remaining.
But the Sun Devils received the second half kickoff and needed little time – 1:52 to be precise – to push their lead to 31-14. Fueled by a 45-yard Kelly-to-Jaelen Strong pitch-and-catch, ASU completed a 75-yard, six-play drive with a 1-yard Kelly-to-Strong TD.
The Buffs answered with a 27-yard field goal by Oliver (31-17), but the quick-striking Sun Devils had a more potent response. On first down from midfield, Kelly executed a perfect read-option, kept the ball after a fake to Foster and sprinted 50 yards to the end zone.
With 8:05 left in the third quarter, ASU’s lead ballooned to 21 points (38-17), but CU wasn’t in a cash-it-in mood. The Buffs marched from their own 18 to the Sun Devils 5-yard line, where on fourth-and-one Lindsay lost a yard.
MacIntyre said the Buffs “have got to find a way to get it in down there . . . we’ll work on that.”
The play was pivotal. ASU maintained its 38-17 lead and CU’s students and some fans began thinking of other ways to finish their Saturday night. The quarter ended with the Buffs trailing by 21 and the crowd beginning to thin.
With Kelly sidelined by his foot injury, Bercovici took over as ASU’s quarterback for the fourth quarter. Enjoying a 21-point cushion, it didn’t appear that Bercovici didn’t need to finish with anything spectacular, only to not to give away any points.
He didn’t, but it put the onus on ASU’s defense to not give away any either – and that proved to be a problem.
The Buffs pulled to within two touchdowns (38-24) by driving 99 yards – the seventh 99-yard march in school history – and scoring on a 31-yard Liufau-to-Spruce pass with 8:38 to play.
After CU’s defense forced another ASU three-and-out, the Buffs took over with 6:46 remaining. They drove as far as the Sun Devils before Liufau suffered his second interception – this one by linebacker Christian Sam – with 4:44 to play. MacIntyre said when Liufau views the game tape he’ll see “busted coverage and a man wide open for a touchdown . . . he’ll be upset.”
The Buffs hopes of a comeback were all but snuffed. With 2:10 left, needing 14 points to tie, their final possession began at their own 7-yard line. Jordan Gehrke replaced Liufau at quarterback and marched CU as far as the ASU 48 before turning the ball over on downs with 15 seconds to play.
Saturday night’s attendance was 38,547 . . . . The Buffs return to Folsom Field next Saturday to play Hawaii at noon . . . . Freshman receiver Donovan Lee made his CU debut Saturday night, his highlight a 45-yard reverse in the third quarter . . . . MacIntyre opened his postgame press conference by congratulating UCLA backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, whose father, Rick, is a former CU and UCLA coach. Jerry Neuheisel led the Bruins to a victory at Texas, replacing injured starter Brent Hundley . . . . The Sun Devils are now 6-0 against the Buffs and have outscored them 244-78. In three meetings since CU joined the Pac-12, ASU owns a 191-61 scoring advantage. The Sun Devils’ three previous wins were 48-14 (2011), 51-17 (2012) and 54-13 (2013).