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CU@Game CU At The Game: CU at Wash. St. – A Preview

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    Colorado at No. 24 Washington State – A Preview




    The last time – in fact, the only time – Colorado played Washington State in Pullman, the Buffs came away with a 35-34 victory.

    It was September 22, 2012, and Colorado scored three fourth quarter touchdowns, the last being a Jordan Webb four-yard run with nine seconds remaining, to pull out the victory. The surprise win turned out to be the last Buff victory of the two-year Jon Embree era, as the Buffs went 0-8 through the rest of the Pac-12 schedule.

    The 2012 Washington State team would not win a Pac-12 game until the end of the season, a 31-28 overtime upset win over No. 25 Washington, to tie Colorado at the bottom of the Pac-12 with a 1-8 conference record.

    Fast forward three years, and Washington State, under fourth-year head coach Mike Leach, has finally got its act together. The Cougars are 7-3, 5-2 in Pac-12 play, and have posted impressive road wins over Oregon and UCLA to go with dominating home wins over Oregon State (52-31) and Arizona State (38-24). Washington State is ranked No. 24 in the nation, its first ranking since 2006.

    The Cougars lead the nation in passing offense … while Colorado will counter with a red-shirt freshman quarterback making his starting debut.

    Three months ago, there were questions as to whether Mike Leach would be job hunting this December.

    Three months ago, it appeared that the game against the Cougars was one of the possible road wins the Buffs would be able to post in order to secure a bowl game.

    Instead, Washington State is secure in its bowl status, while Colorado players will be spending another December enjoying “quality time” in the weight room.

    Sigh.



    Here are this week’s “T.I.P.S.” for Colorado at No. 24 Washington State (8:45 p.m., MT, ESPN)





    T – Talent


    On paper, this is a mismatch.

    On the home side of the field, there is quarterback Luke Falk, who has been named the Pac-12 Offensive Player-of-the-Week three times this season. Falk is the FBS active leader in passing-yards-per-game (406.7), touchdowns (35), and total offense (395.7).

    On the visitor side of the field, there is quarterback Cade Apsay, whose career stat line currently reads: 25-for-34 for 199 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

    So yes, sports fans, Luke Falk has thrown more touchdown passes this season than Cade Apsay has thrown passes.

    Falk is a Davey O’Brien award (given to the nation’s top quarterback) semi-finalist, but his head coach this week was lobbying for Falk for the Heisman.

    “Now (the Heisman) is just the bi-product of trying to speculate who’s the best player of the national championship team,” said Mike Leach at his weekly press conference. “But failure to do that, then I think you ought to go back to the original definition which is who’s made the greatest contribution to his individual team. If that’s the case then virtually everyone needs to vote for Luke Falk. And anybody that doesn’t needs to re-examine why their voting for the Heisman to begin with”.

    And it’s not as if Falk does not have weapons. Washington State enters the week as one of only two teams in the country with seven players owning 20+ receptions this season (CU has five). Gabe Marks was named this week as one of ten (and one of two in the Pac-12) Biletnikoff Award semi-finalists. Don Williams and River Cracraft were on the watchlist for the Biletnikoff Award, making the Cougars the only Power-5 conference school with three nominees.

    While the Washington State offense has received most of the attention this fall (and deservedly so), the real reason behind the Cougar resurgence has been the play of the defense, which has gone from a liability to an asset. Two linebackers – Peyton Pelluer and Jeremiah Allison – are in the top 11 in tackles in the conference, and the defense, which forced all of eight turnovers in 2014, has forced 18 already this season.

    Where the Cougar defense is lacking is in rush defense. It doesn’t happen all that often, but the Buffs will be playing a team this weekend with a rush defense which is worse than their own. The Buffs come into Saturday night’s matchup with the nation’s 103rd-ranked rush defense … but Washington State is ranked 109th (the CU media handout has WSU at 127th, but that was wishful thinking. The Cougars are 109th, according to the NCAA).

    So, the mandate for the Buffs seems pretty straight-forward: run the ball effectively, both to keep the ball away from the potent Cougar offense and make life easier for their new quarterback; win the turnover battle; and finally, at long last, finish off a game in the fourth quarter.





    I – Intangibles


    … On that point of “finishing”.

    It doesn’t look good for the Buffs.

    While CU’s struggles to maintain leads in the second half against Pac-12 foes is well-documented and well-discussed, the opposite has proven true for the Cougars this year.

    Washington State has registered four fourth-quarter comebacks this season, with three of those wins coming in the final minute of play or in overtime. The Cougars defeated Oregon in double-overtime, went on a 10-play, 91-yard drive in the final 1:31, scoring with nine seconds left to defeat Rutgers, 37-34, and, just last weekend, capped a seven-play, 75-yard drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass from Falk to Marks with three seconds remaining to defeat UCLA, 31-27.

    So, if Colorado were to find a way to build a lead against Washington State Saturday night, the Cougars have a history of not panicking, and finding a way to win in the final minutes.

    The Buffs, meanwhile, have no such history to rely upon. In fact, the opposite has proven the case in recent years, with the Buffs failing to hold leads, or failing to finish off comebacks.

    And, not that the Cougars needed any additional incentives Saturday night, it will be Senior Night for 16 Washington State seniors, who will be playing their final game in Martin Stadium.





    P – Preparation / Schedule


    Another weekend, another late night game for the Buffs.

    The late kickoff (8:51 p.m., MT, to be exact) is the second-latest kickoff for a Colorado game this season (counting the 11:00 p.m., MT, kickoff of the Hawai’i game). This will be the eighth night game for the Buffs, passing the former record of six night games played in both the 2008 and 2009 seasons).

    How strange is the plethora of night games this season? Consider this … in the first four seasons Colorado played in the Pac-12, the Buffs played in a grand total of ten night games.

    Then there is this quirk in the scheduling … Colorado has a 5-3 all-time record against Washington State, but Saturday night’s game will mark just the second time Colorado has played in Pullman. In two previous road games against the Cougars, the Buffs won in a game played in Spokane (in 1982, Coach Bill McCartney’s first victory as the head coach at Colorado) and in Seattle in 2004 (in what was basically a make-up game for the 2001 game which was cancelled the weekend after 9/11). The Buffs won both in Spokane and Seattle, as well as in their first trip to Pullman in 2012, making CU 3-0 against Washington State in games played in the state of Washington.

    The Buffs are also 4-1 all-time against Mike Leach. When Leach was the head coach of Texas Tech, the Buffs went 3-1 against the evil genius, and are 1-0 against him at Washington State.

    So, even Jon Embree beat Mike Leach.

    If Embree can do it, anybody can (this will be Mike MacIntyre’s first game ever against Leach).





    S – Statistics


    Colorado has lost three games in a row, and six of their last seven. As is usually the case when a team goes on such a slide, the stats come along for the ride.

    … But it still ain’t as bad as it used to be.

    The Buffs finished the 2014 season ranked 100th or worse in almost every major defensive category (rush defense, 102nd; pass defense, 100th; total defense, 111th; scoring defense, 116th).

    This season, while the rush defense is about as porous as in previous seasons (the aforementioned 103rd), the Buffs are 57th in pass defense; 86th in total defense; and 77th in scoring defense.

    Cause for celebration? No.

    But cause for optimism? Arguably yes.

    The Buffs have been without their lone projected All-Pac-12 performer, linebacker Addison Gillam, since week two, and played the entire season without two projected starters on the defensive line, Josh Tupou and Tyler Henington.

    No excuses. Injuries are a part of the game, and teams must adjust. Colorado has done a better job this season, however, as there is more depth and experience than in previous years. The linebacker corps, which was also without last year’s leading tackler, Kenneth Olugbode, for several games this year, has suffered the most, and is the biggest liability heading into the game in Pullman.

    All other injuries aside, the most recent season-ending injury, to quarterback Sefo Liufau, may turn out to be a blessing or a curse. Teams tend to rally around new quarterbacks.

    Teams also tend to get beat up when they start new quarterbacks.

    Perhaps Cade Apsay will turn out to be the spark the Buffs – and their long-suffering fans – have been yearning for for the past decade.

    Perhaps.





    Prediction … The numbers didn’t add up last weekend for the CU’s game against USC. The Trojans had much more talent, were accustomed to stomping the Buffs, and came into Boulder on a roll. Instead of succumbing, the Buffs out-played the Trojans for the better part of three quarters, holding the lead for most of the game. And yet … the Buffs almost won (and arguably should have).

    Saturday, the Buffs play a Washington State team with just slightly more talent (especially at the crucial quarterback position), and also come into the game on a roll.

    This is a tough call.

    I would like to think that the Buffs will continue to play with an ever-larger chip on their shoulders, bound and determined to finally get over that hump and post a meaningful Pac-12 victory.

    I would like to think that Washington State will be over-confident, and be looking past the Buffs to their Apple Cup showdown with Washington in Seattle next weekend.

    I would like to think that the Buffs can stay with the Cougars long enough to give themselves a chance at a victory.

    In 1982, Bill McCartney’s Buffs won 12-0 in Spokane, in an era when Colorado never beat anybody, especially on the road.

    In 2004, the Buffs came up with a blocked punt, a long kickoff return, and a late goal-line stand to defeat the Cougars in Seattle, 20-12.

    In 2012, Jon Embree’s Buffs, a week after being completely embarrassed by Fresno State (Fresno State!), scored 21 fourth quarter points to come away with an unlikely 35-34 win.

    Colorado: 3-0 against Washington State in games play in the state of Washington.

    For the Buffs to get to 4-0, it will take the magic of all three of their first three wins – great defense and special teams play, decent offensive production … and just a little bit of luck.

    Don’t I wish it would come true for this team …

    No. 24 Washington State 38, Colorado 24

    —–

    Stuart
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