For the second-straight game to open the season, the Washington State Cougars will host a football team representing a public university located in a city of around 100,000 people in a Four Corners state (Saturday, 2 pm PT on Pac-12 Networks). This week, that opponent is the University of Northern Colorado Bears, who hail from Greeley, Colo. and are members of the Big Sky conference.
You may be thinking, “UNC can’t possibly be a bigger deal than WeldWerks Brewing, which is also located in Greeley.” You’d be wrong. Northern Colorado is Greeley’s fourth-largest employer. WeldWerks doesn’t even crack the Top 10—even while producing delicious beers such as Juicy Bits IPA and barrel-aged Medianoche stouts.
One of UNC’s more than 1600 employees in Greeley is head football coach Earnest Collins, Jr., who is in his ninth season leading the Bears. Over that time, he has amassed a 26-63 record. He did guide the program to back-to-back winning seasons in 2015 and 2016, the school’s only winning seasons since moving up to Division I in 2006.
Most recently, UNC finished 2-9 in 2018 before dropping its 2019 opener at San Jose State, 35-18. The Bears were picked to finish last in the Big Sky this season by both the league’s coaches and media.
To prepare you for Northern Colorado’s trip to Pullman, let’s examine the key players and factors for the pride of Greeley.
When Northern Colorado has the ball...
The Bears struggled to move the ball against San Jose State in the opener—putting up just 3.4 yards per play against the Spartans, who were projected to be 103rd in defensive SP+ this season. The real challenge came in the passing game, where sixth-year senior quarterback Jacob Knipp garnered just 4.0 yards per attempt and only 6.8 yards per completion.
Knipp has played bits and pieces of seasons throughout an injury-riddled college career. Overall he’s thrown for 4,334 yards, while averaging a very good 7.9 yards per attempt, so that magnifies just how tough the sledding was against SJSU.
Pressure was an issue for the Bears, a continuation of 2018. The Spartans sacked Knipp four times in 44 passing attempts. He also rushed another eight times, suggesting he avoided other pressure. Last season, UNC quarterbacks were sacked 46 times against 385 passes.
Washington State tallied three sacks against New Mexico State last week, so it should get plenty of pressure against Northern Colorado. Whether that comes from four-man rushes or through blitzing will be something to watch. If the Cougs can’t generate pressure with the standard number of rushers, that may be of concern.
When Knipp isn’t running for his life, he’ll primarily look for Willie Fairman and Dontay Warren, who combined to catch 18 or UNC’s 26 completions in its first game. Fairman was second on the team last season with 33 catches for 439 yards. Warren is more of a big play threat, averaging 19.9 yards on 14 catches in 2018.
On the ground, UNC features senior running back Milo Hall, who led the team in rushing as a junior and carried the ball 20 times in the opener. He’ll also catch a few passes out of the backfield. He caught 23 balls last season, and four against San Jose State.
Jullen Ison will also get some looks in the run game. He matched last season’s carry total in the first game, rushing nine times for 33 yards.
Overall, UNC averaged just about five yards per play last season while not playing any FBS opponents. That’s not a good number, and the Bears output against San Jose State suggests not much has changed.
While there are some skilled players, particularly Knipp when he is healthy and the running back Hall, there probably just isn’t enough there to move the ball against the WSU defense. The Cougs should hold another opponent to single digits.
When Washington State has the ball..
Northern Colorado’s defense did a decent enough job against San Jose State, allowing 6.0 yards per play overall. However, the Spartans figure to have one of the worst offenses in FBS, while the Cougars might have one of the best.
Sacking the quarterback was a challenge for UNC in 2018, registering only 8.0 sacks over the entire campaign. The Bears defense did log a sack against San Jose State, courtesy of freshman defensive lineman Isaiah Iton, who forced San Jose State into an intentional grounding penalty in the endzone for a safety.
Head coach Collins, Jr. told the Greeley Tribune that he believes the defensive line will lead the defense, so perhaps a unit that could not generate much pressure a year ago has improved. WSU’s offensive line will be the biggest, strongest, and best they face all year.
In the middle, UNC returns senior linebacker Luke Nelson, who led the team in tackles last season. Justice Littrell logged four tackles in his first game since converting from fullback to linebacker, while Jace Bobo and Brooks Talkington will see plenty of action after spot starting a year ago.
On the back end, the Bears received a tough blow when should-be senior and All Big-Sky Honorable Mention Sherand Boyd, Jr. retired due to knee injuries in the offseason. Cornerback Michael Walker is the lone senior in the defensive backfield, having started all 11 games as a junior.
Safety Jerone Jackson led the team with 12 tackles against San Jose State. That’s typically not a good sign when a defensive back logs the most tackles on the team.
San Jose State put up 7.9 yards per pass against Northern Colorado. That’s a high number. Even higher? WSU’s 10.3 yards an attempt against New Mexico State, including 12.0 from starter Anthony Gordon.
It’s hard to believe that UNC will generate much pressure against WSU. It’s also hard to believe that the Bears secondary will be able to guard for long against the Cougs’ extremely talented receiver group—not many teams will be able to do this. This is likely to be another field day for Gordon.
Oh, and Max Borghi should do alright on the ground, too.
Northern Colorado is markedly worse than the New Mexico State team that WSU just pounded into the ground, particularly on offense. There should be a lot of short drives, and a lot of punts from the Bears. There should also be plenty of chunk plays and quick scores from the Cougars.
If Gordon shows the same command he did in his starting debut, the #Drop70 for which Cougar fans have been pining since the Mike Leach era began is a distinct possibility. This is not going to be close, but Northern Colorado will get $425,000 for its trouble.