The Buffaloes travel to the Great Northwest this weekend to take on just their third ranked opponent of the season. Washington State has taken a significant leap in 2015, shaking off the old "Couged It!" label and winning close conference games on the road against quality opposition.
Mike Leach's infamous Air Raid attack is now fully operational, as the Cougars possess the nation's top passing offense, and the defense has improved enough to give Luke Falk and his unit plenty of opportunities to go and win games.
Things have been known to get weird late at night in Pullman (and in general, see CU vs. WSU 2012.) Here's what the Buffs will need to accomplish in order to take down the Pirate for the 5th time overall.
The only way to truly slow an offense like Washington State's is to cause havoc in the backfield and force the quarterback into even quicker decisions than he's used to making. The beauty of the spread attack in general is that there's always a safety valve, the numbers advantage is present on nearly every play, and if you have a passer on the level of Luke Falk your success rate is going to be fairly high. While Colorado has been solid in coverage this season, they must disrupt the Cougars at the point of attack to have a chance at limiting this offense.
Where Wazzu can really do damage to Colorado is in the short dump-off game, and on various screen passes. The Buffs have shown they can more consistently get to the passer this season, but they've also been burnt by tailbacks and wideouts catching balls in the flat and turning it upfield. The Colorado linebackers and secondary will need to be quick to recognize where Falk is going with the ball when he's pressured.
A large part of Washington State's new-found success this season can be attributed to the play of their three most effective tailbacks. Gerard Wicks, Keith Harrington, and Jamal Morrow have produced on the ground, creating 36 rushes of 10 or more yards while gaining 899 yards total to this point but perhaps more importantly they've combined to haul in 91 receptions for 657 yards, good for over 7 yards a pop. This kind of production out of the tailback position in a Mike Leach offense is almost unheard of. The Buffs will need to produce consistent pressure, but when they do this defense will need to account for receivers out of the backfield and make tackles in space.
Run the Ball
Washington State's defense, though improved, remains vulnerable to the run. The Cougars are allowing 206 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, ranking them 127th in the nation. Colorado's offensive line should be able to generate a push and put Phillip Lindsay, Donovan Lee, and Patrick Carr in positions to spring big gains.
CU should also be able to control the clock with a consistent and effective ground attack. The more time the ball is in Colorado's hands the less opportunities Falk and his offense have to inflict damage. It'll also provide valuable time for Jim Leavitt's defense to rest and adjust.
If Colorado can pick up 4-5 yards consistently on first downs, as we've been saying all season, it'll go a long way towards helping Cade Apsay establish some rhythm and find some comfort, which will be important because the Buffs will not be able to afford turnovers against Wazzu. The Cougars have forced 9 more turnovers through 10 games than last season and have produced 47 points off of those takeaways. If this game is close late, and there's a decent chance it will be, it could swing on a single Colorado turnover or one stalled drive. A small CU breakdown late will be all it takes for Wazzu's offense to seal the deal.
Don't Coug It
4 of Washington State's 7 wins this year have been come-from-behind triumphs, often decided in the last minute or in overtime. It's fair to say that this year's Cougs have shed the "Cougin' It" trope. (Stanford loss aside, that was a weather/college kicker issue.) Wazzu is where CU fans had hoped the Buffs would be this season. The Cougars are capitalizing on opportunities late, fighting until the very end, and finding ways to finish off quality victories. Leach found and developed talent that perfectly fits his spread offense and Falk and his experienced offensive teammates have been the reason Wazzu is now finally finding success in conference games.
While the Buffs certainly fight through to the finish, they simply have not been able to seal the deal and the reasons for this have been more than thoroughly documented at this point. Colorado still needs a few additional infusions of talent, and they are continuing to build depth and experience by limiting the attrition that had been plaguing this program for a decade. The shame of it for this team is that had they been able to find some way, any way, to pull out even one or two of these close losses over the past two years improvement would have sped up exponentially.
As it stands, CU is still searching for that truly meaningful, quality victory. Saturday night presents the latest in a long line of opportunities. This team just hasn't shown that they're capable of making the necessary winning plays late and they may now be too shorthanded to do so in Pullman. The Buffs could be in it late, sure, but the likeliest outcome has the visiting squad "Cougin' It" and coming up just short yet again. Colorado fans are left to hope that their 2016 will look a lot like Washington State's 2015.
Enjoy the weekend and enjoy one last round of late night Buffalo #Pac12AfterDark action.