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WSU Vs. COLORADO: A First Look At The Buffaloes

A fresh box of Fruit Loops.
A fresh box of Fruit Loops.

When there was talk of inviting Colorado to the Conference of Champions, most were in agreement that it would be a good fit "culturally." This of course meant that everyone in the West are hippies, and the hippies in Boulder would fit right in. At the very least, this seemed to be the perception of those folks east of the Mississippi River.

This reminds me of a conversation I had when I first moved to Nashville with someone who eventually become a very dear friend.  It may have been the second or third time we hung out and she, being a person who had mostly lived in Midwestern and Eastern parts of the U.S., was curious about people on the Pacific.  I offer you an almost exact transcript as to how that short conversation went down:

Friend: Are people on the West Coast like people say they are?

Craig: What do you mean? What do they say we are?

Friend: You know, fruit loops.

Craig: Fruit loops?

Friend: Yeah, like someone who cares about the environment way too much and stuff like that?

Craig: (Looks at plastic bottle he has had in his hand all day in hopes of finding a proper recycling receptacle.)

Craig: Yes. We are fruit loops on the West Coast.

*side note: That friend is now a converted fruit loop.
*additional side note: She will never live this down. I won't allow it.

So welcome to the fruit loop gang, Colorado! I hope you brought your aluminum water bottles and reusable grocery bags!

1,000 words of analysis await you after the jump. That's as many as a picture!

Washington State and Colorado are playing their first-ever real life Pac-12 football on Saturday.  CU got a warm-up when they played a non-conference conference game against Cal two weeks ago.  For the most part, they fared exactly as us elitist Pac-10 holdovers would want.  The Buffaloes made it a good game, taking the Golden Bears into overtime.  Thus solidifying that they can compete with the West Coasters. Even better is that Colorado lost the game, justifying that they still don't quite belong and that is why they don't get as much money as we all do for now.

OFFENSE: 23.8 PPG, 5.7 YPP, #64 S&P

Colorado has been a pass-first team so far in the 2011 season.  They have totaled 161 pass attempts plus sacks, while rushing the ball just 93 times in four games.  The strategy makes sense, as the running game has not been very effective.

Senior quarterback Tyler Hansen has enjoyed a productive start in the first third of CU's schedule.  He has completed 55.3% of his passes and tossed nine touchdowns to only one interception.  Hansen may be the occasional threat to scramble when he's not getting sacked.  When you take out the ten times he has been sacked for a total of negative 63 yards, he has run the ball 18 times for 83 yards and two touchdowns.

Colorado's leading receivers have been Paul Richardson and Rodney Stewart.  You may remember Richardson from his otherworldly performance against Cal earlier this season, in which he caught 11 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns.  Outside of that game, he has put up a more pedestrian 12 receptions for 114 yards.  Was that a flukey performance where Richardson posted a ridiculous catch rate and exploited some broken coverages? Or has he just been targeted less the rest of the season? Or both?

I don't have the target data for this season, but thanks to SB Nation's Football Study Hall, the information for 2010 is free and available to the public.  The wide receiver stats, which can be found here, are particularly interesting because the Buffaloes returned three of their four most targeted receivers from 2010.  Last season, Toney Clemons was thrown to more than anybody on the team, with a 21.6% target rate.  He wasn't all that efficient with his targets, posting a 53.8% catch rate and 6.0 yards-per-target.  That may tell the story of why he hasn't been a huge factor this season, totaling just 8 catches so far.

As for Richardson, he was the third most targeted receiver in 2010 for CU, having 16.7% of the passes thrown his way.  While his catch rate wasn't good (54.8%) he was (and continues to be) a guy who can make big plays and posted 8.3 YPT.  Running back Rodney Stewart, who was only targeted on 10% of attempts last season, leads the team in receptions this year.  I suspect he is benefiting from having more balls come his way, as he snared 29 of the 37 opportunities he was given a year ago.  Stewart is a threat coming out of the backfield and WSU's linebackers will have keep an eye on that.

Tired of hearing about the receivers yet? Let's move on to the aforementioned unimpressive running game.  The raw YPC number looks pretty bad, at 3.16.  However, if you take out attempts by the quarterback, suddenly you have a more respectable looking 3.98 YPC.  Looking further, Bill Connelly's raw S&P number, in which they rank 106th, say that Colorado's rush attack has been downright awful. Stewart gets nearly all of the running back carries, and he has rushed it 72 times for 278 yards.  That makes 105 touches on the season for Stewart with receptions and carries, so expect to hear his name called a lot this Saturday.

With the ineffectiveness of the ground game, and the amount of sacks the Buffaloes have given up, I am inclined to believe that the WSU defense will see a downgrade in talent on the offensive line from their previous game against San Diego State. Here's to hoping someone not named Travis Long or Toni Pole can spend some time in the opposing backfield. If they can, the potential is there for the Cougar defense to have a decent day as the Colorado offense is far from great.

DEFENSE: 30.3 PPGA, 5.2 YPPA, #68 S&P

As bad as Colorado is at running the ball, they seem to be even worse at defending the run. Taking out their 14 sacks for 98 lost yards, the Buffaloes are giving up 5.42 YPC.  S&P ranks them as 102nd in rushing defense. There is clearly a weakness here, and hopefully the Cougs can do something to exploit it.

The running game becomes even more important for WSU when you consider how good Colorado has been at sacking the quarterback.  Marshall Lobbestael has shown himself to be pretty immobile in the pocket, with a tendency to hold onto the ball for a too long.  Mixing in a little more Rickey Galvin most definitely would not hurt.

What is very interesting is that even though CU has been very good at getting pressure, S&P says they have been very bad at defending passing downs, ranking 94th in the country in that category. Maybe a 3rd and 9 here and there won't be so bad for WSU, as Colorado is very apt to let them convert it.

It's pretty clear that Colorado gets most of its sacks through blitzing and stunting.  Only 3.5 of the fourteen have come from defensive lineman.  Senior linebacker Josh Hartigan leads the team with 4.  Defensive backs almost match their line counterparts, with two sacks themselves.  It's likely that CU's staff saw the same thing we did against SDSU (a heavy dose of linebackers running at the quarterback). Expect lots of guys rushing out of standing positions.

Colorado's pass defense is average and WSU does have the potential to do well in that area, but it would be really nice to see the Cougs try out some more designed running plays for this game.  The Buffaloes are a team that can be run against.  Keep that in mind when watching the game this weekend.

Colorado is in trouble if...WSU has learned from their experience against the Aztecs two weeks ago, and can better handle a team giving pressure from more than just down linemen.  If the Cougs are able to run the ball effectively, they may be in for a very good offensive day.

I would expect this to be a competitive game.  Both teams have defenses that can be exploited and both teams have offenses that have the talent to do so.

Thanks to Football Outsiders and for all the data used in this preview.