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Interactive Graphic: Previewing WSU vs Colorado

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday is the first time WSU is playing in a game where both teams are ranked since the 2003 Holiday Bowl vs Texas and it’s looking to me like a Pac-12 heavyweight fight.

It’s actually been tough to focus in on one or two points with this game because there are exciting matchups all over the place. Here is a quick list of categories where WSU’s offense ranks in the top 2 or 3 in the conference and where Colorado’s defense is top 2 or 3 as well.

· Points Per Game: WSU #2 (44 per game) CU #1 (17 per game)

· Yards Per Game: WSU #2 (517 per game) CU #1 (308 per game)

· Passing Yards Per Game: WSU #1 (385 per game) CU #1 (176 per game)

· Pass Attempts Per Int: WSU #1 (73 per int) CU #3 (26 per int)

· 3rd down conversion %: WSU #1 (50.7%) CU #1 (30.72%)

· Red Zone TD %: WSU #2 (77.59%) CU #1 (51.85%)

This matchup feels a little unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object. If you flip the sides of the ball, the rankings aren’t quite as headline worthy, but both teams are still pretty evenly matched up. The Cougar defense ranks 6th in the Pac-12 in scoring (24 points per game), Colorado’s offense scores 35 a game, good for 5th in the conference. WSU’s defense ranks 8th in Yards Per Play (6 YYP), the Buffs’ offense ranks 8th as well (5.8 YPP). There are a ton of juicy match ups to watch play out Saturday.

One area of focus for me on is going to be how well the Cougar defense can stop Colorado’s running game and the third leading rusher in the Pac-12, Phillip Lindsay (93 yards per game). The Buffs average 205 yards per game on the ground, but they’re facing the top run defense in the league. Yes, you read that right, the Cougs are only giving up 116 yards per game on the ground and lead the Pac-12. Hopefully the return of Robert Barber can help Hercules Mata’afa and the Cougar defense put Sefo Liufau in 3rd and long passing situations.

The below chart reads left to right. The far left column ranks the Pac-12 QB’s in overall Yards Per Attempt and the right column looks at that same stat, but only for 3rd down. It shows if they’re better or worse on 3rd down vs their usual self. If you hover over the logo if will give you a pop up to show you the actual stat behind the ranking. Liufau is 6th in the Pac-12 in overall YPA, getting about 7.9 yards for every pass attempt. However, on third down he drops to 14th in the Pac-12 and only gets 5.4 YPA. You can use the drop down to toggle between a few other stats and the situation filter to add other situations (1st half, 2nd half, etc.) to see how each QB ranks in those categories vs their overall numbers.

(if on mobile try turning your phone horizontal and the chart should fit to the width of your phone)

On the flip side, for the Cougar offense to have success they will need to continue to stay ahead of the sticks. WSU is getting a first down on 35% of its plays, good for 6th in the country. The below chart shows that while WSU moves the chains very well, they’re kind of an outlier in that they don’t pop a ton of explosive plays. You can use the “select % of plays over x+ yards” to change the chart, but it’s set looking at what % of WSU’s plays go for 20+ yards (5.98%). While Jamal Morrow, Gabe Marks and the Cougar O get first downs at the same rate as Texas Tech, UW and Louisville, they get 20+ yards about as often as Buffalo and Kansas.

The reason that matters is that Colorado is really good at keeping teams from getting first downs. Below is the same chart, but looking at defense data. In this chart you want your team to be in the lower left, as that means you give up a low % of plays over the yardage selection and not many first downs. Colorado is 9th in the country in limiting first downs and lets a play of 20+ yards about as often as Ohio State and Michigan. WSU is one of the best teams in the country at converting on 3rd down, but Colorado is one of the best at stopping teams, so the Cougs will need to get yards early to stay on schedule and keep the pressure on Colorado.

This game is going to be tough and I think also a great game to watch. The loss of River Cracraft hurts immensely, but hopefully the return of Robert Barber to the Cougar defense — and the opportunity to clinch the North this weekend, if the football gods smile upon us with a UW loss — gives the Cougs the boost they need to win in Boulder.

What are you looking for out of the Cougs on Saturday?