Colorado comes back to Pullman on Saturday for the first time since ... well, let's not talk about that! Let's just focus on the fact that the Cougars are ranked and favored by a couple of touchdowns over the Buffaloes ...
Wait -- they were favored by a pair of touchdowns in 2012, too?
Well, this team has been slaying dragons and exorcising demons all year, so I guess this is just going to have to be another in a long line of slayings and exorcisms.
Colorado has changed a bit since then; the Buffs fired Jon Embree and hired Mike MacIntyre after his successful stint at San Jose State, and while Colorado has definitely made strides under him, they Buffaloes are still a pretty bad team, as their 1-6 record in the conference would attest.
They've played some teams close, leading USC for a half at home last weekend before an injury to quarterback Sefo Liufau caught up with them. How the Buffs cope without their leader will be a major factor in whether Colorado can come close to pulling off an upset this weekend.
For the answer to whether they can do so -- as well as the answers to other questions -- we tabbed Jack Barsch of SB Nation's Ralphie Report to give us some insight on the Buffs.
CougCenter: How would you characterize the progress of the program under Mike MacIntyre?
RR: Slow and steady. It’s there, and you’d have to be blind not to notice it. This team is night-and-day different than the one he inherited in 2012, just three years ago. However, the difference between losing and competing in the PAC-12 is huge (crossed that bridge), but the chasm between competing and winning is even bigger (something WSU would know about). Not all of us have Luke Falks, though CU may have a special QB in a red shirt right now in Steven Montez. MacIntyre has made this program a legitimate football team again, not much more I could’ve asked, considering where they were starting.
CougCenter: Is there any chance that Cade Apsay can approximate Sefo Liufau’s production?
RR: Yes, there is a chance. Apsay showed, against USC no less, what people have wanted to see from Sefo all year. He scanned the field, stepped up in the pocket, and actually used the middle of the field. However, there’s a reason Sefo was the starter. Cade isn’t the runner that Liufau was, and he can’t stand the punishment that Sefo could. Apsay, if he’s on like he was against the Trojans, can do some damage. He’s accurate and makes quick decisions. I don’t know much about WSU’s secondary, but if they play off coverage, it could be a long day.
CougCenter: Apsay took a lot of sacks last weekend. Is that something you think he’s going to struggle with against the Cougs, who feature a pretty good pass rush? Or was that more due to simply being thrown into the fire?
RR: The offensive line will most likely struggle against the Cougar pass rush, which means Apsay will also struggle. He holds on to the ball too long if the first read isn’t there sometimes, which doesn’t really differ him from Sefo. I’m sure part of his struggles were due to the nature of his first meaningful game action, and he smartens up for WSU, but the pass rush should have a good day. The offensive line has struggled all year with good athletes at DE.
CougCenter: Who’s the most likely player on offense to step up in support of Apsay and haunt our dreams?
RR: Well, the easy and correct answer is Nelson Spruce, because unless you dedicate a stupid amount of resources to stopping him, he’s going to get his. Spruce is a QB’s best friend, and I’m sure you will see a lot of bailout throws going his way. However, if the defense decides to bracket him, look for Shay Fields to do work. He was the best receiver for the Buffs until he suffered a high ankle sprain, and if he can regain his old form, he’s a force to be reckoned. Assuming CU is smart and tries to ball control the Cougars, Phillip Lindsay and Patrick Carr could have a big role to play. Carr has the athleticism to challenge the Cougs’ edges, and Lindsay is a mini-bull.
CougCenter: How well equipped is Colorado’s defense to deal with the Air Raid?
RR: Well, the passing defense is second in the conference behind Stanford, allowing only 217.9 yards per game through the air, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. Part of the reason that’s so low is the fact that usually everyone can get what they want on the ground, so throwing isn’t necessary. Colorado has elite talent in the defensive backfield, however. Chidobe Awuzie is an all-PAC player, no question, no debate. Tedric Thompson is a top 5 safety in-conference, and Jered Bell is a great deep safety. It’s going to be hard to throw against them, but you don’t have to!
CougCenter: Some of our fans are worried this is a trap game. Do you see Colorado as a team ready to jump up and surprise the Cougs?
RR: You know, i’m glad you asked, because I do. CU matches up really well with WSU this year, and while Luke Falk is amazing, the weather also seems to be in the Buffs’ favor. I don’t know, I’ve said this a lot this year, but this team just seems ripe for an upset. This would be the best chance this year. So knowing me, WSU will probably win by 80.
And, here my answers to their questions, if you're curious!
RR: 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).
RR: 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.
RR: 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.
RR: 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.
RR: 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.
RR: 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.