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Cougars vs. Buffaloes: Enemy Intel and 3 Key Stats

Ralphie Report talks to Jeff Nusser of CougCenter about the upcoming upset bid in Pullman.

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The Colorado Buffaloes are heading to Pullman to take on the Washington State Cougars in the second to last game of the season. To find out more about the Cougars we sat down with the WSU blog, Coug Center. You can see our answers to his questions here.

Luke Falk is tearing secondaries up and seems to be one of the best gunslingers in the country. Is it the system, him, or the perfect marriage between the two?

I think every great quarterback features a perfect marriage between player and system. No quarterback is good at everything, and Falk is no different. He doesn’t have a cannon arm, so USC might hesitate putting him under center, and he’s not real fleet of foot, so you wouldn’t want to see him taking snaps from RichRod. But in the Air Raid? He’s incredible at finding the gaps that inevitably appear thanks to Mike Leach’s tried-and-true route concepts, and his arm is plenty strong enough to get the ball to all the spots on the field it needs to. He’s also tremendously accurate -- it’s stunning when he makes a throw that’s dramatically off target. One of his best qualities is that he just doesn’t take a lot of chances with the ball (although he does sustain a few too many sacks because he’ll hang onto it, rather than fit it into a tight window).

The defense is unusually stout in Pullman this season. What’s the reason for the improvement and what are they good at?

WSU changed coordinators in the offseason, and it appears Alex Grinch has taken the talent on hand -- which has matured quite a bit since last season -- and maximized it. Under the previous coordinator, players often looked slow and unsure of themselves; under Grinch, they’re confident, attacking and playing fast. WSU is one of the top teams in the country at creating havoc (tackles for loss, forced fumbles and passes defensed), and they’ve been pretty good at limiting explosive plays -- certainly much better than the last few years. It’s still not a great unit -- they’re 90th in S&P+ and 95th in yards per play -- but this team didn’t need the defense to be great: It just needed it to be not patently terrible. And they’ve been that.

GIve me an honest perspective of Colorado from the outside, no punches pulled. How do you see the program?

Probably a lot like we saw ourselves a few years ago, honestly. I see a team that plays hard, but lacks the athletes to get over the hump. Perhaps there are young guys in the pipeline that we don’t see, but from the outside? It doesn’t look like Colorado is all that close to turning a corner.

Who is one player that Buff fans don’t know about on offense and defense that they should?

Well, with all the attention focused on Falk and how much the ball gets spread around, the wide receivers probably all look the same to outsiders who haven’t watched the team closely. So I’ll go ahead and introduce you to Gabe Marks, who probably will make you hate life more than once on Saturday. When Falk needs a play, he throws it to Marks -- whose Twitter handle is @throwitupto9. Usually, it turns out pretty OK. ( On defense, let’s go with Destiny Vaeao. The senior defensive lineman is the one who initiates a lot of the havoc we talked about earlier, splitting blockers and causing huge headaches in the backfield.

Dread Pirate Leach is one my favorite characters in a world of wacky coaches. What’s been the difference between this successful season and previous unsuccessful ones under him?

I think it’s pretty similar to what we said about Grinch, but on a larger scale. He’s raised the talent level in the program and it’s maturing, but for the first time in his tenure, his team looks at the game of football the same way he does. These guys shrink from no challenge, are remarkably focused on the task at hand, and are obsessed with being the best version of themselves, which means they haven’t been satisfied with whatever measure of success they’ve attained this season.

We’ve been waiting for this team to have a letdown, and it actually did happen -- for all of one half of one quarter against ASU, when WSU fell behind 14-0 early in the game. Of course, they came back to outscore the Sun Devils 38-10 the rest of the way to win pretty handily. Then, with bowl eligibility in hand, they went out and beat UCLA on the road.

How do you see the game playing out on Saturday night?

I’m sure Colorado fans are hoping for the Cougs to overlook them with the Apple Cup looming … but that frankly hasn’t been this team’s M.O. They’ve been remarkable in that regard, and I don’t see any reason why that would change now, particularly with it being senior day. The crowd is likely to be light -- there are thousands of tickets remaining, and it’s the beginning of Thanksgiving break, which means a lot of students (which typically make up about ⅓ of the attendance) will have already left town before Saturday’s 7:45 p.m. local time kickoff -- but again, I don’t see that bothering these guys. I’d be pretty surprised if the game is ever seriously in doubt, even if Colorado is able to keep it within a TD or two for a half. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they blew Colorado’s doors off.

Three Key Stats

Stat Profiles- WSU and CU. S+P Rank- WSU- 71st. CU- 95th

Turnover Margin (Expected, not Actual)- WSU- (-5.86). CU- (+8.41)

Passing S+P- WSU Offense- 95.0, ranked 87th. CU Defense- 98.3, ranked 70th

Finishing Drives (Points per trip beyond the 40 yard line)- WSU Offense- 4.82, ranked 60th. CU Defense- 4.84, ranked 81st.

Alright, I'm going to make the case for a CU win. First, let's start with the S+P ranking of the Cougars. This is the closest match up, according to that number, since the Oregon State. By a good margin, despite the fact that Washington State is ranked. Good news.

Second, although the Buffs are better than WSU in actual turnover margin, the difference is much more striking in "expected" turnover margin, and we here at Ralphie Report are all about shock value. If the luck evens out at all, and the weather may help this out given Mike Leach's propensity to pass, the Buffs may be put in a very good position to win. They may be given extra chances to win and limiting the Cougars' chances is critical, however they do that. Finally, WSU's offense is not nearly as dominant as I expected them to show on the advanced stats. They are efficient, yes, but their explosiveness stats aren't that impressive and the passing game, as shown above, didn't blow me away on the stat sheet. This is where I may lose my faint in advanced stats a bit, because any CFB fan with a brain knows how lethal the Leach Raid is, especially with a QB like Luke Falk. I expect that WSU fans might be a little disappointed in his performance on Saturday.

Finally, the last stat will ultimately decide the game. Finishing drives have been huge for the Buffs. It seems like every third quarter, CU just has a few three and outs and lets the other team back in the game. They CANNOT do that against WSU, or they will get burned. They have to get 1st downs and keep their offense off the field and try to get some points, any points, that quarter. Time for Brian Lindgren to coach up his unit that quarter. Maybe now that Cade is in the tight end will be used in the middle of the field. That would eat clock and yards at the same time. I'm excited for this game, as it could be a huge confidence boost. I'm sure all of this will end in a crushing defeat. Such is the life of a CU fan. Go Buffs!