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ASU’s offensive attack unable to outproduce Colorado

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels runs for a first down against Colorado during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Entering Saturday night’s matchup with the Colorado Buffaloes at 3-0, the Arizona State Sun Devils knew they needed their offense to produce.

Through three games, the team had only managed to put up 19.7 points per game, leaving some to believe that the Sun Devils’ offensive attack couldn’t hang with a high-scoring team when called upon.

Saturday provided the perfect test, a coming-out party if you will, for the young Sun Devils’ offense against the high-powered Buffaloes.

But while ASU surpassed its single-game points and touchdowns total, success didn’t come easy for the Sun Devils (3-1; 0-1), who fell 34-31 to Colorado (3-1; 1-0) in what turned into an offensive back-and-forth battle.

“It ended up being the game that I thought it would to best be quite honest. A scoring affair,” ASU head coach Herm Edwards said after the loss. “Problem is we couldn’t slow them down in the first half. Seemed like every possession, except for the one they fumbled the kickoff, they scored points.”

Colorado set the tempo from the start, seamlessly taking its opening drive 75 yards on 10 plays for the first score of the night.

Already down 7-0 to an offense that averaged 36.3 points per game ahead of Saturday, the Sun Devils took the field behind true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels.

The offense moved the chains, but didn’t look fully in rhythm, as senior wide receiver Frank Darby dropped a wide open pass down the sideline.

But Daniels wouldn’t shy away from looking down the field, connecting with freshman wideout Jordan Kerley for the 33-yard completion on the next play to move the chains.

Another miscue would hamper the Sun Devils’ opening drive, however, as junior running back Eno Benjamin found the open lane, running the rock 23 yards to the Buffaloes’ one-yard line. A clipping penalty negated the run, though, moving ASU back to Colorado’s 40-yard line.

The promising drive would turn from bad to worse just a few plays later as sophomore kicker Cristian Zendejas missed a 48-yard field goal try, leaving the Sun Devils empty-handed.

And while the Sun Devils were still looking to hit their stride offensively, the Buffaloes continued to pick apart ASU’s defense.

Colorado methodically went back to work, capping off an 11-play, 70-yard drive with a 29-yard TD strike for an early 14-0 lead.

But just as Colorado looked to be running away with things, ASU woke up.

After missing a wide open Darby for the would-be score, Daniels went back to the air in a big way four plays later on third down, connecting with senior WR Brandon Aiyuk on a 53-yard touchdown pass. It was an impressive drive for ASU, which went 76 yards down the field in eight plays.

“We know the type of receivers we have,” Daniels said of his pass-catchers. “[Brandon Aiyuk] and Frank are both deep threats. I feel like nobody in the country can guard them so we just have to give them a chance.”

The deficit was cut to 14-7, but the Sun Devils still needed to find a way to limit the Buffaloes’ offense.

Luckily, the team wouldn’t need to wait long to find the answer.

On the ensuing kick, ASU’s special teams unit stepped up in a big way, forcing and recovering a Colorado fumble.

The offense, on a short field and with momentum shifted back on its side, wasted little time with the gift it was given, going 40 yards before Benjamin secured the score on a four-yard scamper.

Just like that, it was all tied up in Tempe, but the scoring was far from over in the first half.

“Today we kinda picked up as an offense, we’re starting to find our rhythm now,” Daniels said. “We just have to keep building off of it. I don’t see anything like a number one need [to fix in the offense], but just got to build on some things.”

The Buffaloes would answer with a score of their own on the next drive, as Montez found Brown for the 31-yard TD. The lead change wouldn’t last long, with ASU responding 10 plays later on a Benjamin three-yard TD run, his second of the night.

Colorado would not be denied the first-half lead, taking the narrow 24-21 lead into halftime off of a 25-yard field goal.

Both defenses were gashed in the first half, as ASU (254) and Colorado (269) combined for 523 yards and six touchdowns.

The Sun Devils and Buffaloes continued to trade blows in the second half, with ASU striking first in the third quarter with a 23-yard field goal to tie things up with 3:42 left to go in the quarter.

Colorado answered the Sun Devils’ call in no time, as Montez connected with Brown for a 20-yard score, their third hookup on the night, setting the stage for a critical fourth quarter from Daniels and Co.

The freshman signal-caller stepped up to the occasion following the Colorado score. Behind the arm of Daniels, ASU drove 65 yards down the field in just five plays that ended with a 39-yard passing touchdown to Darby.

The defense also saw its play elevated late, as it forced Colorado to punt on the ensuing drive.

But just as things seemed to be clicking on both sides of the football, things took a sudden turn.

After picking up two quick first downs, ASU’s offense had a golden opportunity to walk away with the lead, sitting at Colorado’s 33-yard line. A score looked almost certain.

Almost.

Instead of finding the open receiver, Daniels made one of his most costly mistakes of his young college career, tossing his first interception of the season.

An opportunity surely missed.

After punts from both sides, Colorado finally ended the stalemate with under three minutes to play on a 44-yard field goal, but also left enough time for ASU.

The drive was the worst of the evening for the Sun Devils, as they couldn’t find any positive yardage, unable to overcome the three-point deficit.

It also represented the end of Daniels’ night, who finished with 345 yards, two scores and a pick on 24-of-39 passing, all career highs.

“It’s very frustrating, nobody likes losing,” Daniels said. “Just knowing that I put this game on me because that pick changed the game, changed the outcome. We had points on that drive and it could have been 34-34 instead of 31-34, so it’s very frustrating but we can’t dwell on it. We’ve got to just move on to Cal.”

The timing of the loss is reminiscent of last year’s start to the season, where ASU took down a ranked Michigan State team before falling in their next game.

The loss stings, but Daniels’ improved play is encouraging, a building block for a team looking to continue to grow offensively.

Up next, the Sun Devils look to right the ship as they take on the undefeated Cal Bears (4-0).

“We’ve got to look at it, and get it corrected. We’ve got a fast week coming up,” Edwards said. “We’re playing a good team, Cal’s 4-0 now and its got a very stingy defense. They play well, and they’ll be excited about playing us. It’s a conference game and we’ve got to get ourselves ready to go play.”

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