On a sunny and chilly November afternoon, the Buffs played meaningful football again. This game was, without a doubt, the most important game Colorado has played in over a decade.
The Buffs came into this game No. 10 in the country and were hosting the No. 22 Washington State Cougars. The Cougars had lost their first two games of the season but hadn't lost since and were undefeated in eight Pac-12 games leading up to today. With a win, the Buffs would be one step closer to the Pac-12 and that much closer to the Rose Bowl. With a loss, the Buffs would lose the Pac-12 South to USC.
You watched the game - everyone watched the game - so you know the Buffs won and they did so emphatically.
The Buffs offense, one of the most efficient in the country, got things going early with a balanced attack that thrived on Phillip Lindsay power runs, underneath routes from YAC-gods Jay MacIntyre and Kabion Ento, and long passes to the dynamic trio of Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross. With that, the Buffs took on an underrated Cougars defense and drove the length of the field almost effortlessly. The drive concluded with back-to-back Lindsay runs in which the Colorado offensive line created sizable holes for the 5'8 dynamo to run through. His touchdown, a 9-yard run to the left, was his 14th of the season. This balanced attack would keep Wazzu honest and this running game would win them the game.
Washington State answered Colorado's touchdown on the following play. The Buffs pass defense, by far the best in the Pac-12 and possibly in the nation, flustered Cougar legend Luke Falk and broke up a litany of passes. Their offense did, however, find their footing after a questionable pass interference call on Isaiah Oliver on a long pass attempt. A few plays later, Falk found Robert Lewis in the end zone for a touchdown. On that play, Tedric Thompson and Afolabi Lagudasandwiched Lewis, but because Laguda led with his helmet, he was called for targeting and ejected. He would be sorely missed.
The Buffs followed that Wazzu score with a failure of a drive that ended almost as soon as it started. After a 13-yard pass to Kabion Ento, he of the ulta-violent running, fearsome running back Phillip Lindsay fumbled. Wazzu's defense dove onto the ball and took possession on the Buffs' 33-yard-line. Luckily for the Buffs, the Cougar offense stalled and their kicker, Erik Powell, pushed his 51-yard attempt wide left.
A long drive from the Buffs followed, but yielded nothing. The offensive line once again showed their grit as they created big holes for Lindsay to run through, and once he got to the second line of defense, he shimmied, shook and spun for extra yards on almost every run. The biggest gain for the Buffs here was a 31-yard pass from Liufau to Bryce Bobo. On that play, Bobo got a step on his defender, caught the pass in stride and carried that defender on his back for another 8 yards. Unfortunately, Bobo suffered a lower leg injury on that play and would not return. Speaking of misfortune, that Colorado drive reached the Washington State 28-yard-line, but the Buffs failed on a 4th down conversion.
Colorado's defense, now without safety Laguda, struggled on deep passes on that next drive. Falk, with all the time in the world to find receivers, dropped in perfect pass after perfect pass as their offense moved down the field easily. This drive culminated with a 46-yard touchdown pass to running back Jamal Morrow, who found an opening in the seam where Laguda would have been.
The Buffs offense didn't do so hot on their next drive either, as a 31-yard pass to Devin Ross wasn't enough to keep punter Alex Kinney off the field. If there was a bright side to that drive, it was that Kinney eventually pinned the Cougars inside their own 10-yard-line. Those extra yards proved to be vital for the Colorado defense.
Once again, the WSU passing attack was just good enough to beat the CU pass defense - having no pass rush certainly helped - as they moved the ball on a series of long passes. Seriously, if Luke Falk drops dimes like that all the time, I'm going to start walking behind him and get rich off that change. Falk's beautiful passing did all it could on the drive, but a few keys drops from his receivers - including one in the end zone from Biletnikoff Award candidate Gabe Marks in the end zone - saw their offense face a 4th down conversion deep inside Colorado territory. Akhello Witherspoon, son of Zeus, knocked away the 4th down pass and gave the Buffs the ball back.
If momentum exists in football - I'm skeptical - the Buffs offered key evidence for it. After that crucial play from Witherspoon, the Buffs offense put together an incredible drive that moved the ball efficiently on the ground and through the air. Liufiu, the immortal warrior he is, created first downs out of would-be sacks and kept the Buffs going. Liufau eventually found the end zone on a short run and saw the Buffs tie the game at 14. Also on this drive, Phillip Lindsay hit a milestone on this wonderful season of his, as he gained his 1,000th yard of his career, just the 15th time a CU running back had accomplished such a feat.
The Cougars then drove and hit field goal to go up 17-14. Then after a short and unsuccessful Colorado drive, Washington State had another chance to score to close out the half. The Buffs defense would bend, but wouldn't break. The Cougars reached midfield, but key pass breakups from Chidobe Awuzie and Witherspoon gave the Buffs a stop. Curiously, Mike MacIntyre chose not to call a timeout even though there was 1:20 left in the half and the Buffs could have scored. Luckily, the Wazzu's Kyle Sweet shanked a 2-yard punt to give Colorado great field position. The Buffs marched onward and came close to scoring on a couple plays - Ento dropped a potential touchdown and Ross was overthrown on a deep route - so they settled for a field goal. Davis Price's attempt was even close to being close and the half ended with Buffs down 17-14.
The second half began with another short, unsuccessful drive from the Buffs, but the offense would look sharp in the period. After that Kinney punt, the Cougars took over and fared no better against the Buffs' defense. Again, the Buffs flustered the Wazzu receivers and held them to nothing but short gains. Then, a marvelous leaping deflection from Isaiah Oliver stopped the Wazzu drive.
Colorado put over at their own 30 and drove from there. The Buffs used a run-heavy attack to move the ball on the Cougars, and that they did. Liufau and Lindsay took turns bashing as the Buffs slowly but surely churned out first down after first down. Once in the red zone, Liufau ran it three times in a row and charged into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Washington State followed that up with a scoring drive of their one. Their scoring drive was founded on their rushing attack, as their passing offense couldn't do much of anything. (That is, by far, the least Mike Leach sentence ever written.) Early in this drive, the Cougars faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 30-yard-line and went for it just because, and they converted with a 30-yard Morrow run. Later on, the Cougars again gashed the Buffs' defense and came away with a 21-yard run down the sideline. The play after, Falk found his receiver on a fade route for the touchdown.
Now down 24-21, the Buffs answered back. They kept running and running and got close enough for Liufau to score another touchdown, his third of the game. To say he valiantly would be an insulting to Liufau. Even with an injury or two - he always plays with at least one injury - he willed the Buffs to the end zone. Liufau finished the game with 345 passing yards, 113 rushing yards, and those three touchdowns.
The Cougars got the ball back but couldn't do anything with it. They put together a promising, well-balanced drive but were faced with a 4th down at the Buffs' 25-yard line. On that play, Falk threw left to a wide open receiver, but Nick Fisher, the safety filling in for Laguda, came out of nowhere and had a flying tackled to stop the receiver short. That would be the closest the Cougars to the end zone for the rest of the game.
Up 28-24, the following drive was successful for the Buffs, both in the sense that they moved the ball well and in that they gained points out of it. Using that same balanced offense - now more run-heavy - Colorado drove to the 30-yard-line before the Wazzu defense stopped them on 3rd down. Out came embattled kicker Chris Graham. He lined and kicked the 46-yard attempt. He found nothing but All State Goods Hands net after his kick sailed through the uprights. Not that Graham has had many opportunities for greatness, but that was far and away the most important kick of his life. Him and his perm did wonders for the Buffs, and his efforts were not in vain.
As good as the Buffs defense was in the second half, they picked up their game in this drive and got the ball back to the CU offense quickly. On this drive, the run defense stiffened up and the pass defense hit another gear. Here, the defense forced an incompletion, swallowed a receiver on a short gain, and sent Addison Gillam flying in for the 3rd-down sack to end the drive.
If Colorado's defense played bend-but-don't-break, the Washington State defense did as well. But, under the pressure of CU's unstoppable running game, their defense finally broke. The Buffs ran rampant and Phillip Lindsay soon found a hole and the end zone for his second touchdown of the drive and 15th of the season. He finished with 147 rushing yards and should gain some narrative steam in time for awards and All-Conference selections.
That touchdown with only 4 minutes to go essentially sealed the game, but a defensive stop would completely end it, and that they did. The CU defense pressured and batted away all of Falk's passes and forced a 4th down attempt. On that play, Jimmie Gilbert came off the edge, found his way to Falk and forced a fumble that Gillam dove onto. Gilbert's NCAA-leading sixth forced fumble of the year and Gillam's recovery extended the Buffs' streak of forcing a turnover to 24 games, also first in the NCAA.
With that fumble and Colorado running out much of the clock on the four plays thereafter, this game was already in the bag as Wazzu took over with 40 seconds left. Then Tedric Thompson had a diving interception to put a cherry on top of the win. Liufau came back onto to field to kneel the ball and finish the Buffs' 38-24 win.
Against one of the best defenses in the country, the Buffs moved the ball up and down through the air and on the ground. With this balanced attack, they muscled the Cougars into the ground. On the other side, the Buffs offense bent but would not break and came up with the biggest plays in the biggest moments to seal the victory.
And with that, Colorado is now one USC loss or one win (against Utah) away from winning the Pac-12 South and getting a chance at Washington or Washington State in the Pac-12 Championship. If the Buffs beat Utah and win the Pac-12 Championship, they're in the Rose Bowl, at the very least. This season has been a dream and it will continue onward.