A potential preview of the Pac-12 Championship is on tap this Saturday, as Washington State and Colorado meet in Boulder for one of the top matchups in Week 11. With two weeks remaining until the Pac-12 Championship, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding both divisions in the Pac-12. Colorado (6-1) holds a slight edge over USC (5-2) and Utah (5-2) in the South. However, the Buffaloes face a difficult two-game stretch to close out the season, as Washington State visits this Saturday, followed by a home date against Utah on Nov. 26. The Cougars are in a similar position, with a trip to Boulder this Saturday and a home date against Washington on Black Friday.
After a disappointing 0-2 start, Washington State enters Saturday’s game riding an eight-game winning streak. Coach Mike Leach’s team is an unbeaten 7-0 in Pac-12 play and defeated its last two opponents – Arizona and California – by a combined score of 125-28. As usual under a Leach-coached team, the Cougars are led by a dynamic offense. Quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks are two of the nation’s top players at their position, helping the offense average 44.3 points a game. Falk and Marks aren’t the only reason for Washington State’s eight-game winning streak. The ground game is averaging 4.5 yards per carry – the highest mark under Leach – and the defense holds conference opponents to 5.77 yards per play.
While Washington State was expected to be a bowl team this year, the preseason expectations were much different for Colorado. The Buffaloes entered 2016 with a 2-25 record in Pac-12 play under coach Mike MacIntyre. However, Colorado has showed marked improvement in MacIntyre’s fourth year and enters Week 11 at 8-2 overall and 6-1 in Pac-12 play. MacIntyre is in the running for national coach of the year honors, as this team has taken a significant step forward this year. The Buffaloes’ only defeats in 2016 came at the hands of Michigan (45-28) and USC (21-17). Regardless of how Colorado finishes the year, the program will earn its first bowl trip since 2007. That’s a pretty big accomplishment and a sign that MacIntyre has this program moving in the right direction.
Colorado leads the all-time series 5-4 over Washington State. These two teams have met three times since Colorado joined the Pac-12. The Cougars own a 2-1 edge in those meetings, including a 27-3 victory last season.
Washington State at Colorado
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Colorado -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington State’s Passing Attack
With Mike Leach calling the plays, it’s no surprise Washington State ranks second nationally and first in the Pac-12 in passing (385.5 ypg) offense. Quarterback Luke Falk is the catalyst for the Cougars, throwing for 3,610 yards and 33 scores through the first 10 games of 2016. Falk has a bevy of talented pass catchers at his disposal, with senior Gabe Marks working as the preferred target and one of the nation’s best receivers. The depth at this position suffered a setback when River Cracraft (53 catches) was lost for the year in last week’s game due to injury. Cracraft is second on the school’s all-time list for career catches (218) and will be missed. With Cracraft sidelined, Tavares Martin (54 grabs), Kyle Sweet (18), Robert Lewis (20) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack will be counted upon even more to take some of the pressure off of Falk.
Considering the firepower in Washington State’s offense, Colorado coordinator Jim Leavitt is going to have his hands full in developing a gameplan to slow down Falk and Marks. Leavitt’s arrival in Boulder has been a huge part of the improvement by Colorado’s defense in recent years, as the Buffaloes limit opponents to just 4.56 yards per play (best in the Pac-12). The success for this unit starts up front. Leavitt’s group ranks third in the Pac-12 in sacks (29), and the front seven is led by seniors Josh Tupou, Samson Kafovalu, Jimmie Gilbert and Kenneth Olugbode. Gilbert (nine sacks) is the top rusher, with Olugbode (78) leading the team in tackles.
Stopping Washington State starts in the trenches. And it’s not just the passing game the Buffaloes need to worry about. The three-headed attack of James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks is capable of providing enough balance to prevent the defense from keying too much on Falk and Marks. Williams leads the team with 528 rushing yards, while Morrow (6.1 ypc) and Wicks (5.7) are also capable of popping a few big runs. Can Colorado’s front seven create enough havoc to disrupt the timing of Falk? Which brings us to the next level of the defense…
2. Colorado’s Secondary
While the success of Colorado’s defense starts up front, the secondary features a couple of the nation’s most underrated players. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is a standout performer and doesn’t get the credit he deserves on a national stage. Awuzie has recorded 39 tackles, eight pass breakups and one interception this fall. The senior teams with senior Tedric Thompson (safety) and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to form a standout secondary that leads the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense. Through 10 games, Colorado has only allowed nine passing scores and holds quarterbacks to just 50.9 percent on completed passes.
The stat sheet and talent level doesn’t lie: Colorado has one of the top defensive backfields in the nation. However, it’s also fair to suggest this secondary is going to face its toughest test of the year on Saturday afternoon. When the Buffaloes lost to USC, the Trojans passed for 358 yards behind freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. With Falk and Marks playing at a high level, this secondary will be tested early and often on Saturday.
3. Colorado’s Offense Versus Washington State’s Defense
While the defense has received most of the attention for Colorado’s improvement this year, the offense also deserves a tip of the cap. The Buffaloes ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring last year (24.6 ppg), but the hire of co-coordinator Darrin Chiaverini to help implement more spread and no-huddle looks to spark this attack in 2016. Through 10 games, Colorado is averaging 35.2 points a game and 5.8 yards per play. A healthy Sefo Liufau at quarterback has also helped, as the senior has passed for 1,535 yards and 10 scores and added 316 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Liufau missed two games due to injury, but backup Steven Montez kept the offense performing at a high level. When Liufau throws, Shay Fields (40 catches), Devin Ross (48) and Bryce Bobo (40) are the preferred targets. The improvement of the passing attack has been instrumental, but the Buffaloes are also getting more production from their ground game. Junior Phillip Lindsay (937) is closing in on 1,000 yards and will be a good test for a Washington State defense ranked first in the Pac-12 against the run (116.9 ypg). The Cougars are only facing 29 rush attempts per game but only one opponent has managed to surpass 171 yards on the ground against this defense.
This matchup is likely to be decided on how well Colorado’s defense handles Washington State’s offense. But the matchup of the Buffaloes’ offense against the Cougars’ defense is just as important. Can Colorado control the overall pace of the game by establishing the run and keeping Washington State’s offense on the sideline? The Cougars have made significant strides on defense under coordinator Alex Grinch the last two years and received a boost during the week when nose tackle Robert Barber was cleared to return to the team. Grinch’s defense only has 17 sacks this year but ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in third-down defense.
The line for this game should fall somewhere around four or five points in favor of Colorado. We have to agree with the oddsmakers on this one, as it’s hard to find a huge advantage for either team. Both programs have looked impressive for the most part this year but lack wins over teams with a winning record (Colorado – Stanford and Washington State – Stanford and Idaho). Washington State’s high-powered offense faces a stiff test from Colorado’s defense, but the Cougars’ last two trips outside of Boulder (Oregon State and Arizona State) resulted in narrow escapes. Colorado’s offense isn’t the high-powered machine that Leach’s group can be, but this unit is going to test the Washington State front seven and secondary with a balanced attack. Considering how tight this game is expected to be, keep a close eye on the turnover margin. The Cougars at plus-10 this year, while the Buffaloes are plus-seven. This one is tough to call, but the homefield advantage and defense propels Colorado to a last-second win.