The final two games of the season will decide whether or not the Colorado Buffaloes can claim their first divisional title since the early aughts. With wins over the Washington State Cougars and the Utah Utes the Buffaloes will take the South and move on to the Pac-12 Championship.
Saturday’s game between Colorado and Washington State features the Pac-12 division leaders squaring-off in a final cross-divisional game before they face off against their rivals. In last year’s meeting the Buffaloes failed to get anything going and lost to the Cougars 27-3. Quarterback Sefo Liufau didn’t play due to breaking his foot the week prior and was replaced by Cade Apsay.
What to expect from Colorado on offense
Liufau will be looking to build on the momentum the offense gained last week, throwing for three touchdowns and running for another against Arizona. Unlike the rest of the teams in the Pac-12, Washington State is the only team CU’s record-setting QB has yet to face in his career. Ironically, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for capping off a solid career at Colorado. Liufau will be relied on to lead a steady passing game against the Cougars defense, who are ranked 19th in the nation in rushing yards allowed with 116.9 yards per game. The Buffs are ranked in the top 40 nationally for passing and rushing yards with Liufau having one of the best touchdown to interception ratios in the conference.
CU running back Phillip Lindsay has had a fantastic season and will be vital in helping the Buffaloes keep the Cougar offense off the field on Saturday. He’s 63 yards shy of breaking the 1,000 yard mark for the season and has tallied 13 touchdowns. Lindsay’s carries have nearly doubled in the past four games and he’s being utilized as a receiving option more as well.
Shay Fields leads the team with an average of 17.8 yards per reception and eight touchdowns. For "Showtime Shay," this will be his moment to show the nation why he’s one of the nation’s best route runners. He’s currently third among receivers in the Pac-12 with a total of 710 yards.
What to expect from Washington State on offense
Cougars quarterback Luke Falk doesn’t make mistakes and the Buffs secondary needs to have a flawless game in order to shut down the Cougar aerial attack. The majority of play calls (63.5%) for the Cougars have been passes this season and Falk has attempted 40+ passes in 8 of the 10 games thus far. He’s currently third in the nation with 3610 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Washington State has gotten away from the one-dimensional attack of seasons past and have been able to gain the tough yards on the ground in 2016. The Buffaloes will still need to shut down Luke Falk first but they won't be able to completely ignore the rushing attack.
What to expect from Colorado on defense
Colorado’s 11th ranked defense will be tested against WSU’s 10th ranked offense in this matchup. The Buffs’ pass defense leads the conference, holding opponents to 176.3 yards per game. Colorado’s held teams to an average of 13.8 points over the past four games and remains second in the nation for red-zone defense. If CU can hold the lead in total defense at the end of the season, it will be the third time leading the conference in the past 58 years.
The Buffaloes strong secondary could force big adjustments from Washington State during the game. Tedric Thompson will be playing inside out, over-the-top of coverage and can play be a centerfielder for the back four. Falk is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the nation by relying on short passes with a quick release to his receivers. The Buffs defense will have to watch Falk’s eyes, because he rarely looks for a second or third option unless he’s scrambling around. Thompson has to stay focused and follow where Falk’s targeting for an opportunity to force turnovers.
What to expect from Washington State on defense
The Cougars are led by defensive end Hercules Mata’afa, who’s built around the best run stopping defense in the Pac-12. The majority of yards the Cougars have given up are to passing offenses and they rank 50th in total defense. They have a huge disparity on defense in being ranked 109th against the pass to 19th against the run. Liufau can manage a complete game by exploiting the Cougars secondary and linebackers, but don’t count Lindsay out of the equation for the Buffs.
Safety Shalom Luani’s four interceptions have contributed to WSU’s turnover margin of +10 this season. As a unit, the Cougars have progressively improved in forcing opponent turnovers (2014- 8, 2015- 24, 2016- 20 currently). Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will be facing an "Air Raid" assault at altitude from CU early and often. The 271.6 yards per game the Cougars give up on average is right on par for the Buffs to have a successful outing.
Odds and ends
Colorado seeks to improve the nation’s longest forced turnover streak currently at 23 games. The Buffs can make it five-wins-in-a-row during the final stretch of the season.
Washington State’s riding their longest winning streak since 1930 and will be looking to go 9-2 for the first time since 2003.
Colorado’s currently a 5-point favorite according to most of the major Las Vegas sports books.
The Buffs pre-Thanksgiving matchup with the Cougars at Folsom Field is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. MT start with national television coverage on FOX. This will be the first-ever appearance for CU on the network. Mark Johnson and Gary Barnett will have the call on 850 KOA for radio.
52° and partly cloudy.