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WSU vs. Colorado: Q&A with Ralphie Report

We had questions. They had answers.

UCLA v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

You probably know precious little about the Colorado Buffaloes, despite the fact that the CFP selection committee ranked them No. 10 in the country on Tuesday.

That’s because, like WSU, they haven’t been featured in a ton of sexy matchups, and thus haven’t been thrust front and center on your television screen despite their lofty 8-2 record. (Sound like another team you’re familiar with?)

So, we reached out to our brethren at Ralphie Report to get to know the Buffs a little better, and Jack Barsch was kind enough to answer our questions.

(Our answers to his questions follow.)

CougCenter: Colorado’s turnaround probably seems stunning to most opposing fanbases, but since we went through our own “stunning” turnaround last year, we know these things can happen. Did you see this coming? And how has Mike MacIntyre accomplished this?

RR: No one could have predicted 8-2 this year other than MacIntyre himself. CU was seen as a team that would struggle to bowl eligibility and improve incrementally, especially given that this was Coach Mac’s fourth year. It was make-or-break time. And boy, was it made. I would love to say I saw this coming, but I predicted a 5-6 team heading into the Utah game. They have blown everyone’s expectations out of the water. Now, I happened to make the trip to Michigan, and after that first quarter, I could tell you that this Buffs team was legit.

MacIntyre has made his team believe and give every ounce on every play. He’s fond of saying he’s playing with men now, instead of boys, which makes all the difference in the world. The players look more physically imposing, every day of practice is met with intensity, and this team knows how to put together winning football teams. The entire roster has bought in. Now, it’s not just the players. Jim Leavitt was a masterstroke hire at defensive coordinator, and he has really coached up this unit. The hire of Darrin Chiaverini on the offensive side has infused that side of the ball with tempo and led to better quarterback play due to easier play.

CougCenter: Colorado hangs its hat on defense; WSU (obviously, duh) hangs its hat on offense. What do the Buffs do well on that side that could disrupt the Cougars’ potent attack?

RR: Well, everything! But specifically relevant to the Cougars is the dominant secondary. Chidobe Awuzie could match up against Marks, but if I was the defensive staff, I would want him as close to the line of scrimmage as possible. Let him cover nickel, and send him on blitzes. He’s disruptive. On the other side, you have Ahkello Witherspoon, a lockdown corner in his own right, though not quite as stout against the run. He can run with Marks, though that will be a battle all day. Finally, Isaiah Oliver is a fantastic third cornerback that would start for almost everybody else in the conference. Oliver can cover everyone and is a freak athlete. Going to the safeties, Tedric Thompson is a great centerfielder that can lay the wood and Afolabi Laguda is great in run support. This athletic, experienced group will disguise coverages and blitz from everywhere to try to make Luke Falk’s life hell. They can match up 1-on-1 with almost everybody, and other than a few big gahsers, have given up very little the past few weeks.

The front three of Jordan Carrell, Josh Tupou, and Samson Kafovalu is also very stout and should be able to generate some pressure if need be. They can also play the run well. Tupou is a legit NFL defensive tackle, something very rare in college and even rarer outside of Tuscaloosa.

CougCenter: Who is one guy on defense who could turn in a series of plays that makes us throw our hats to the ground in disgust?

RR: Chidobe Awuzie is a conference first-team pick that can do everything in the defensive backfield. Lock down corner? Check. Best cornerback blitzer in the country? Check. Physical against the run? Check. Chidobe will make plays, no doubt about that, and the best way to neutralize him is to not throw to him. Awuzie makes everyone around him better. Tedric Thompson had a very nifty story after the Stanford game in which he said that his second pick was made due to the fact that Chidobe told him the exact route the receiver would run the play before. He’s smart, athletic, and an NFL talent. WSU should watch out for number four.

CougCenter: Sefo Liufau is going out with a bang after it was questionable whether he’d even play this season. What has made him so effective?

UCLA v Colorado
Sefo Liufau
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

RR: Sefo Liufau has unparalleled toughness, leadership, and control of this team. He has every single intangible you would ask for in a senior leader in a team. I’ve run out of ways to try to explain his unmeasured value. Sefo simply has “it”. This team has adopted his attitude and they are better off for it. Now, on the field, Liufau is no slouch. He holds plenty of Colorado records, and should get the TD record this week or next. He can run the hurry-up offense to perfection, is great at pre-snap recognition, and will make the right rean 95% of the time. His two interceptions against UCLA seem to be an aberration, and without those, he’s sitting at one for the year. He throws a gorgeous deep ball, can escape with his feet, and will run over the secondary if you let him.

CougCenter: WSU seems to give up one really big play a game to an explosive athlete. Who will that be this game, and why?

RR: Devin Ross is a good pick for that. He is fast and will get targets depending on where the defense focuses. Given how hot Shay Fields has been recently, I bet he will the attention of a safety over the top. That will leave Devin Ross in favorable coverage. Ross can FLY, has good cuts, and Sefo knows how to throw the deep ball to him. Ross will get plenty of targets, but if WSU has a penchant for giving up explosive plays, he’s a great bet. Phillip Lindsay will also get some chunk plays at running back.

CougCenter: With 5 being “it’s in the bag” and 1 being “totally gonna lose,” rate Colorado fans’ confidence in success on Saturday.

RR: They are probably at about a three. They would be at a two normally, or on a neutral field, but the fact this game will be in Boulder, and it will be a little colder, that gives some Buff fans confidence. Folsom will be rocking, and boy do the fans miss the day of meaningful football games in November. WSU will be tough, and the fans recognize that, but the balance that the Buffs have plus the home field advantage makes them excited more than nervous.

Ralphie Report: Luke Falk is as unreal as always, but it seems like the difference between this Cougar team and previous iterations is the balance. How does Mike Leach strike the balance on offense, and does Leach use the run to set up the pass or the opposite?

Well, it’s both … and neither.

Mike Leach’s definition of balance is a lot different than everyone else’s -- you can read more about that here -- but the tl;dr version is that he’s never all that worried about his run/pass ratios in and of themselves. The Air Raid is specifically designed to be able to attack any part of the field at any time, and for the first three years of Leach’s tenure at WSU, the Cougs obviously could pass the ball, but the ability to attack weak defensive fronts via the run was a noticeable blemish that allowed defenses more freedom to clog up passing lanes.

The team took a step forward in that regard last year, but this year the team has finally evolved into a true Air Raid attack that can punish whatever weakness you present to the Cougs with your defensive schemes. Sometimes that means running the ball 30 times if a team is shading toward stopping the pass; sometimes that means throwing it 50 times if a team is determined to plug up the run. It’s really a fluid, game-to-game -- and play-to-play -- situation.

Ralphie Report: What has Alex Grinch done for this defense and what should CU fans expect to see in terms of defensive style? What is the best way to beat this defense?

Grinch is a smart dude who knows how to use his personnel effective. The first thing WSU is going to do is sell out to stop the run. That starts with a stout defensive line that has specialized in penetration under defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, but it’s enhanced by the activity of nickelback Shalom Luani.

An all-Pac-12 honorable mention at safety last season as a junior college transfer, Luani moved into his new role when the starter there went down with an injury. He’s been nothing short of incredible in a role that’s more akin to the NFL’s “Money Backer” position than the traditional nickel corner; when he recognizes run, he’s like a downhill runaway train toward the ball carrier, and he’s adequate enough in coverage. You really have to account for him on every play.

That said, the defense has been a little susceptible to big plays -- usually one a game -- because of this aggression. But it’s a trade-off they’re willing to make to keep people behind the chains.

And there’s the rub for an offense to beat them: You’ve got to keep up with the chains, and you’re almost certainly going to have to complete passes at a high percentage to do it. Then, if you can protect your quarterback and you’ve got someone outside with some wheels, you can get behind them from time to time. But if you’re getting stuffed on the run and the pass rush is getting home? No chance.

Oh, and one other thing: These guys are ball hawks.

Ralphie Report: The loss of River Cracraft is pretty big for the Cougars, but somehow I get the feeling that WSU has depth at receiver. Who steps up in his absence?

Probably Kyle Sweet and John Thompson. Neither is as dynamic as Cracraft, and he will certainly be missed -- he and Gabe Marks form about as reliable a receiving duo as you’ll find in the entire country -- but each should do a serviceable job in an offense that will find the open man … wherever he is.

Ralphie Report: Any chance the Buffs can catch WSU looking ahead to the Apple Cup? (please say yes)

Nope. This team has thrived on DISRESPEKT, and being ranked just No. 22 while riding an eight-game win streak is certain to fuel their fire with the opportunity to take down the No. 10 team. Plus, if UW somehow blows it against Arizona State, WSU would clinch the Pac-12 North with a win.

Ralphie Report: Who’s the one player to watch on offense? What about on defense?

So many guys to watch on offense. I’ll give you two: receiver Gabe Marks and running back James Williams. Marks is the team’s top receiver, and he’s liable to make just about any team silly enough to try and cover him with just a single corner look foolish. His get-off at the line is second to none, his hands are incredible, and it’s possible he’s actually the toughest player on the field.

Williams is the team’s most explosive running back. He’s such a natural runner, blending speed with tremendous acceleration, balance and strength. He’s the one guy on the team who makes you sit up and go WHOA at least once a game, and sometimes it’s only because he turned a 4-yard loss into a 2-yard gain.

On defense, it’s Luani, who likely will be the linchpin in terms of trying to disrupt Colorado’s RPOs. But since I already talked with him, let’s go with Hercules Mata’afa. Not only will he have the best name of anyone out there on Saturday, he’s also a gifted pass rusher. His consistency has been a little more hit and miss than we’d like this year, but he’s still capable of taking over a game.

Ralphie Report: What is your prediction for the game?

I think it’s going to be awfully close. I don’t think Colorado can hold WSU under 30 (unless there’s a driving rain storm like we had against UCLA), and I’m not sure the Buffaloes have four touchdowns in them against the Cougar defense. So let’s go 31-24, WSU.

Ralphie Report: Can we take a second to appreciate that there is a top-25 matchup between the Buffaloes and the Cougars in late November?

Yes, we most certainly can. Our staff was talking about this the other day -- how incredible is it that these two programs have pulled themselves up out of the muck? They were the undisputed worst programs in the conference just four or five years ago, and to be here right now is pretty glorious. We’ve also benefited from some down years from the traditional power schools, but nobody’s going to remember that in a few years. This is very, very cool.