Cougars, Buffs headed in opposite directions
Washington State (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) needed a late touchdown catch by Easop Winston Jr. to escape with a 19-13 win over California last week and keep conference title and playoff aspirations alive. It wasn't the prettiest performance for the Cougars. Washington State totaled 413 yards but went just 4-of-12 on third down and scored only two touchdowns in five trips into the red zone.
Getting bowl eligible is suddenly a concern for Colorado (5-4, 2-4) as the regular season winds down. A four-game losing streak has erased a Top 25 ranking and 5-0 start for the Buffaloes. Colorado has struggled to finish drives during its skid and has struggled even more to stop opponents from shredding its banged-up defense through the air.
The Buffaloes lead the all-time series 6-5. Washington State has won two of the last three meetings with Colorado, including a 28-0 victory in Pullman last season.
Washington State at Colorado
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington State +5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Colorado stop Gardner Minshew at all?
The Buffaloes are not in a good spot right now when it comes to defending the pass. Oregon State tallied 345 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Arizona piled up 350 yards and four touchdowns. Evan Worthington, Colorado’s starting strong safety, missed the loss against the Wildcats with a concussion and is questionable this week.
None of this bodes well for dealing with Gardner Minshew, the nation's leading passer. Minshew was named as one of 16 semifinalists for the Davey O'Brien Award this week for good reason. The senior has thrown for 3,517 yards and 27 touchdowns in nine games. He is completing 70.8 percent of his passes and has thrown just seven interceptions all season. Minshew averages 51.7 pass attempts per game, so the Buffaloes will be forced to defend many more passing plays than usual.
One thing Minshew is good at doing is spreading the ball around. Four different Washington State players have at least 400 receiving yards. Dezmon Patmon leads the way with 621 yards and three touchdowns on 44 receptions.
2. Will Laviska Shenault Jr. return to action?
Getting Laviska Shenault Jr. back would offer a major boost to Colorado’s offense. The Buffaloes have gone 0-3 while Shenault has been sidelined with a toe injury. Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said his status was day-to-day earlier in the week, but Shenault indicated on an Instagram post at the beginning of the week that he would play on Saturday.
If it happens, his presence will shore up a banged-up receiver corps. Shenault accumulated 780 yards and scored six touchdowns on 60 catches before his injury. He also factored into the run game, at times, gaining 87 yards and rushing for five touchdowns on 15 carries. No player has averaged more catches than his 10.0 receptions per game when he has been healthy. His 130.0 receiving yards per game is also among the nation's best.
Colorado is also missing receivers KD Nixon and Jay MacIntyre. Nixon left with a hip injury and MacIntyre suffered a concussion against Arizona. Both players remain day-to-day ahead of Saturday. Juwann Winfree and Kabion Ento could be counted on to step up again in their absence. The duo both set career-highs for receptions against Arizona. Winfree had eight catches for 101 yards and Ento finished with 82 yards on five catches.
3. How much pressure will Washington State put on the Buffaloes?
Generating sacks has become second nature for the Cougars this season. Washington State leads the Pac-12 with 27 sacks. The Cougars are averaging 3.0 sacks per game and have a Pac-12 best 14 players who have recorded a sack this season. They rank third in the league in both rush defense (131.0 ypg) and pass defense (191.1 ypg).
Dominick Silvels and Peyton Pelluer have set a blistering pace in creating negative plays for opponents. The linebacker duo each have a team-leading 3.5 sacks. Jahad Woods and Will Rogers III are right behind Silvels and Pelluer with 3.0 sacks apiece. All four rank among the top 30 Pac-12 players in that category.
All of this could be bad news for Colorado. The Buffaloes have allowed 22 sacks for a total loss of 145 yards in nine games. They have allowed 74 tackles for a loss overall and lost 277 yards on those plays. Both numbers rank 11th among Pac-12 teams.
Colorado is in a complete tailspin. Washington State is inching closer to a division title. These are two teams going in completely opposite directions. The Buffaloes are moving the ball better over the past two games, but they are struggling to get stops on passing plays. If there's one team that knows how to exploit that weakness, it is the Cougars. Washington State won't experience any trouble finishing drives against Colorado’s defense. It will leave the Buffaloes in a desperate situation heading into their final two games.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Colorado 24
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of wsucougars.com)