Not long ago, the Colorado Buffaloes and Washington State Cougars both looked like teams capable of making noise in the Pac-12 South. The Buffs beat two ranked teams during a 3-1 start, including Arizona State 34-31 in the conference opener. The Cougs dominated non-conference play while averaging 49.3 points per game during a 3-0 start.
But Colorado has lost two in a row, including a 45-3 embarrassment at Oregon in Week 7, and is now 3-3 overall and 1-2 in Pac-12 play. Washington State has fallen to 3-3 as well, following an 0-3 start in conference play after last week’s 38-34 loss to the Sun Devils. Instead of preparing for a Pac-12 title run, the two teams instead meet in Pullman on Saturday in hopes of starting the second half of the season strong and eventually reaching a bowl game.
Colorado at Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington State -12.5
When Colorado Has the Ball
The Buffaloes got great news last week when Laviska Shenault Jr. was deemed healthy enough to play against Oregon. Shenault, widely considered one of the best and most physically impressive receivers in the country, caught four passes for 70 yards in his first action since Sept. 21. He has 21 receptions, 296 receiving yards and two touchdowns, while adding 66 rushing yards and a TD on nine carries.
The presence of Shenault, not to mention the elite Ducks defense, limited the effectiveness of Tony Brown, who was held to 16 yards on five receptions last week. Brown had emerged as quarterback Steven Montez’s favorite and most productive target in his previous two games, posting back-to-back 140-yard performances, including a three-touchdown outburst in the win over Arizona State. Brown leads the team with 34 catches, 458 receiving yards, and four touchdowns.
The dynamic duo, along with K.D. Nixon and Dimitri Stanley, gives Montez one of the best receiving corps in the Pac-12. As a result, Montez ranks fourth in the Pac-12 at 265.7 passing yards per game, having completed 65.2 percent of his pass attempts, and averages 7.6 yards per attempt. He has 10 touchdowns and six interceptions to his credit.
Colorado can run the ball as well. Alex Fontenot leads the team with 463 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 103 carries, with freshman Jaren Mangham close behind with 239 yards and three TDs on 59 attempts. However, the Buffs are somewhat inefficient and rank No. 9 in the conference in yards per play (5.79) as a unit, which ranks 73rd nationally.
Meanwhile, Washington State has struggled to slow down opposing offenses — especially in Pac-12 play. The Cougars have surrendered 571.7 total yards per game in conference games and 8.0 yards per play during the three-game Pac-12 losing streak, both of which are worst in the league by a wide margin. The Cougars also recently replaced defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who resigned Oct. 4.
When Washington State Has the Ball
You’ll never believe who leads the nation in passing this year. Washington State’s 452.7 passing yards per game are 57.2 yards better than No. 2 LSU. Naturally, quarterback Anthony Gordon (435.3) leads all FBS quarterbacks in passing. Overall, Gordon has completed 71.3 percent of his passes for 2,612 yards and ranks second with 25 touchdown passes. Nine of those TDs came in a record-setting performance against UCLA, in which he also tossed two interceptions. Gordon has been picked off six times this year but threw three touchdowns without an interception last week against Arizona State.
Gordon has no shortage of talented receivers at his disposal. Eight Cougars have caught 16 or more passes this season, led by Easop Winston, whose 42 receptions are second-most in the Pac-12. Winston also leads the team with 496 receiving yards and is tied atop the conference leaderboard with nine touchdowns. Wideouts Dezmon Patmon (449 yards, 4 TDs), Brandon Arconado (352, TD) and Travell Harris (308, 5 TDs) plus running back Max Borghi (271 receiving yards, 2 TDs, 407 rushing yards and 5 TDs on the ground) have all made major contributions offensively.
There’s a great chance Washington State will continue to have success through the air this week. Colorado has allowed 307.2 passing yards per game this season, which ranks tenth in the Pac-12, and the Buffs rank 11th in yards allowed per pass (9.2). Those figures rank No. 124 and No. 125 nationally.
Which defense will step up? Washington State should have its way through the air against one of the worst pass defenses in the country, which has been hampered by injuries in the secondary and front seven. Top pass rusher Mustafa Johnson has missed consecutive games with an ankle, and it’s unclear whether Johnson will be available against the Cougars. Washington State has struggled defensively as well, but the Cougs are healthier as a unit and have a slight edge.
We should expect lots of points but for Washington State to play just well enough on defense to pick up its first Pac-12 victory.