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Pre-Snap Read: WSU vs. the Colorado Buffaloes

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Could a big play or two decide this one?

UCLA v Colorado Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

This Saturday, Washington State plays in its biggest game since 2003 when the No. 15 Cougars faced No. 5 Texas in the Holiday Bowl. That same year saw the most recent regular-season game of consequence, when No. 6 WSU visited No. 3 USC on November 1 and promptly got their doors blown off, 43-16.

Similarly, the last time Colorado had a ranked-on-ranked match-up was in 2005, where they went into Austin and got smoked 42-17 by a Longhorn team that’d go ahead and drop 70 on them a couple months later in the Big 12 Championship.

After that season, the Buffs won 10 conference games in five years under Dan Hawkins, with the high water-mark of his tenure cresting in Shreveport for a six-point loss to Alabama in the Independence Bowl. John Embree won four games in two years, including the 2012 homecoming game against WSU, and now after three somewhat garbage seasons, Mike MacIntyre and his Colorado Buffaloes have ripped off eight wins not a lot of people saw coming.

Washington State flirted with six wins throughout most of Bill Doba’s regime following that 2003 Holiday Bowl, even reaching bowl eligibility in 2006 with three games left on the schedule after beating No. 16 Oregon and UCLA back-to-back. They lost all three of those games and remain one of the few Power Five programs to ever get to six wins and be left out of bowl season.

Mike Leach won more conference games last month than Paul Wulff did in four years and that’s about all you need to know about that stretch of history.

The point is this; both of these programs have been good before — albeit WSU for more brief flashes of time — and both have sat at the bottom of the Division 1 barrel throughout a large majority of the years their current roster has been able to walk and talk.

When No. 22 Washington State (8-2 overall, 7-0 Pac-12) dons their crimson helmets this Saturday at No. 10 Colorado (8-2, 6-1) — 12:30 PM PT on Fox — it will be the most important football game either fanbase has watched in over a decade.

That is a really cool thing.


Colorado saw immediate improvement when they hired defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt before the 2015 season. Leavitt left Iowa in 1990 after receiving his doctorate to follow Bill Snyder, who’d been the offensive coordinator for the Hawkeyes under Hayden Fry for 10 years, to Kansas State. After coaching linebackers for a season, Leavitt was promoted to co-defensive coordinator with Bob Stoops and spent the next five years building that program into a Big 12 powerhouse on defense, ranking first nationally in his last season.

In 1995 Leavitt was brought in to coach the then-FCS South Florida Bulls, and transitioned them into FBS after four years, building that program entirely from scratch. He redshirted every single player in the 1996 season. He peaked at South Florida in 2007, reaching as high as No. 2 in the AP poll after six wins to open the year, including over ranked Auburn and West Virginia. They were the fastest team to ever ascend to the Top 10 in the AP poll.

Leavitt was fired from USF in 2010 when allegations arose that he struck a player during halftime. During the investigation, USF officials felt Leavitt wasn’t truthful and was instructing players and coaches to change their stories to align more with his version that he was attempting to console the player.

Leavitt moved on to coach linebackers for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2014, where he won two NFC West titles and an NFC Championship.

The Buffs run an aggressive 3-4, mixing zone coverage behind a front that has highly variable stunts.

Brian Anderson - CougCenter

Here we see the Buffs set up in their Base alignment, three down lineman with a stand up rush backer (right, bottom), two inside backers, a walked out nickel/OLB (left, top), two corners and two safeties.

Arizona is running a basic pass concept — H-out in Air Raid terminology — that has complimentary routes to the bottom in a fade by the No. 1 outside receiver and a five yard out by No. 2 inside receiver. They have double slants to the backside (top) that they play a little more like in-breaking option routes, both sit facing a dropping zone coverage.

That coverage up top is your garden variety Cover 4, or “quarters”, the Nickel/OLB is responsible for the flat, the corner has deep sideline and the safety has deep hash-to-numbers. CU shows Cover 2 to the opposite side with the corner at five yards or less and the safety on his hash.

They pattern match off No. 1 in this coverage, where the corner has him vertical past seven or so yards and the safety crashes to the flat. Any in-breaking route from No. 1 would have the safety pick him up, with the added bonus of a robber (hook-to-curl) coverage drop from the stand-up rush backer (who gives an alignment like he’s on No. 2). Arizona hits the inside receiver up top in the middle of the zone coverage for a nice gain.

What’s interesting here is their lack of a BOYS (back out your side) linebacker assignment, which they did repeatedly against UA, opting for a blanket zone. UA only connected with RBs a few times, which is markedly different than how WSU attacks a defense. Pay attention early to whether or not CU has backers marking RBs out in pass coverage; that could end up being a massive Coug advantage if CU elects to let them complete passes and tackle in space.


Colorado leads the PAC-12 in pass plays over 40 yards, with 14. That ranks them seventh, nationally. The Buffs wouldn’t be described as super explosive in the pass game — they’re 38th in passing IsoPPP — but they do hit the occasional home run. And in a tightly contested battle like this is supposed to be, it’s doesn’t have to be about what you do all the time, it could be what you do just once.

Buffalo receiver Shay Fields has six of those 40-plus yard receptions, tying him atop the conference with Washington’s John Ross in that category.

We went over how aggressive Wazzu’s free safety play is in the run stop last week against Arizona. They regularly crash the alley in support. These next two opponents feast on undisciplined safety play.

Here’s CU in a typical two-by-two (Ace) formation at mid-field against Oregon State.

Fields is highlighted as the No. 2 inside receiver down low. The Buffs run a simple slant-out combination up top and get a little fancy with a double-move from Fields down low.

The QB fakes and inside zone.

Oregon State is in a straight Cover 4 here. Backers are drifting to their flats, corners are bailing down the sideline and the safeties are not dropping nearly fast or deep enough for what’s about to happen to them. The run fake keeps the Field Safety (bottom) flat-footed enough to just watch Fields run right at him. A well-timed pump fake from the QB with a head-and-hip turn from Fields to the inside is all he needs to flip the safety out of phase. 51 yards. Play the fight song.


What has me concerned about the Colorado Buffaloes

Not Martin: Wazzu is averaging 15 points per game less on the road than at home this season (35.5 to 50.6), with an average margin of victory of 28 points at home, compared to just eight on the road.

The Palouse has been real kind to the team this year, after they played arguably much better outside the state last season.

Washington State v Stanford
River Cracraft
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

21 GONE: Football is heartless. River Cracraft became the next in a recent line of seniors who were injured before completing their final season last Saturday. Next man up is the unquestionably capable Kyle Sweet, but there’s no doubt losing a team leader like Cracraft on offense will have an impact, especially on third down where he was as reliable as any receiver in college football.

De-fense (clap clap): CU is certainly the toughest defense WSU will have faced so far this season. They rank 9th in defensive S&P+ and are especially stout in pass defense, ranking in the top 10 in just about every defensive category. It’s a real strength-on-strength matchup as CU is ranked 8th in defending Success Rate, which is WSU’s highest ranking offensive metric at 7th.

The Buffs are geared to stop the exact kind of marching the Coug offense is excellent at doing.

Spotlight: WSU has been happily doing its thing at 1:00 AM ET for most of the season. Players and coaches have all said how much they’d prefer playing during the daylight hours and now they’ll get all that and more. Both divisions are on the line, as is a potential playoff spot, and the game is in a prime Eastern time window on big Fox.

Last week, UW-USC drew over 4 million eyeballs in the later slot on Fox. WSU hasn’t had anything near that and there’s no real way to predict if the team will rise to the occasion (block out the noise / feed off the energy narratives) or be completely overran by it.

Brian Howell, who covers the Buffaloes for BuffZone.com, was kind enough to give us his insights after talking with Michael Preston on the CougCenterHour Podcast this week.

What are you confident in about the Colorado Buffaloes?

“I’m most confident that the Buffaloes will be focused and ready to go. That’s been a huge part of their success this season, their ability to be ready to play every week. Not all teams can do that, but that’s been the case with this team. They don’t get overconfident against weaker teams, and they don’t overwhelmed when having to play good teams. Because of that, I feel good about them showing up to play, and playwell.”


What I’m confident in about Wazzu

92 BACK: Robert Barber’s suspension was stayed this week and he was allowed to return to the football team. He practiced Wednesday, and comments from DC Alex Grinch sound like he’s in good shape and ready to go for a few snaps here and there. Chantel Jennings posted a stat that WSU’s run defense allowed 4.2 yards per carry between the tackles with Barber off the field and 2.2 yards per carry with him on it.

Washington State v Washington Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

They’ll need him going up against Philip Lindsey, who averages 5.6 yards per attempt on 168 carries this season with 13 touchdowns.

En Fuego: Luke Falk is 68-of-85 (80 percent) for 684 yards and 9 TDs against 1 INT in his last two games. That is Gwen Stefani level B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

You F-ing Kidding Me?: We chart the offensive distribution at the end of every season based on touches to each position. On a per-game basis, WSU has typically gotten mid-50s touches to their skill position players with mid-20s going to the running back “F” position for somewhere between 115 and 150 yards. Around 15 of those are rush attempts and another 5-10 are receptions. It fluctuates a little but that’s generally what has happened.

In the last two games, the F position has averaged 39 touches — with 13 receptions and 26 rush attempts — for 301 yards and 5 TDs. This is PER GAME and amounts to about 57% of the total Cougar offense.

They are ninth nationally in Rushing Success Rate, sixth in Opportunity Rate with 46% of their attempts going at least five yards, seventh in Power Success Rate by picking up short yardage needed to move the sticks 84 percent of the time, and first nationally in Stuff Rate with only 11.5 percent of their carries getting stopped at the line of scrimmage.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State
Riley Sorenson
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No Sack November: Clean sheet. Falk hasn’t really been touched by two bad defenses and that’s a major hat tip to the offensive line. According to the Pro Football Focus PAC-12 Podcast, Andre Dillard, Cole Madison, Cody O'Connell and Eduardo Middleton are all ranked No. 1 in the conference at their positions by Pro Football Focus. They now boast just a 2.5 percent sack rate on standard downs — where WSU spends roughly 70 percent of its time — which ranks 15th nationally.

Thanks Thanksgiving: On a live chat this week, hosted by Mr. Howell, Colorado fans seemed a little concerned about the potential student attendance with Thanksgiving break starting for them this weekend. The Buffalo student section is around 10,000 and Folsom Field holds around 50,000. They’re about 5,000 tickets short of sellout and apparently being within an hour from Denver and ranked 10th in the nation wasn’t enough to keep fans from thinking the student section would be a little sparse.

So, Mr. Howell...

What about Wazzu should concern the Buffs?

“Like most teams that play the Cougars, CU ought to be concerned with that passing game. Luke Falk runs that offense extremely well, and he’s not easy to stop. The Buffs are very strong on defense, especially in the secondary, but this will be a significant challenge for them.”


How I see the game playing out

The Cougar offense versus the Buffalo defense will be the marquee match-up this Saturday. If WSU can get in position to make CU chase them on the scoreboard, things start to tilt in the Cougars favor. Colorado hasn’t scored more than three touchdowns against an opponent with any kind of defense since Michigan, where they scored 28.

Vegas sees the game as 32 - 27, Colorado (CU -4.5, O/U 59). The advanced metrics favor CU quite a bit more, giving WSU just a 27 percent win probability and score prediction of 24.9 - 35.6.

I see this being a struggle for WSU offensively in the opening quarter, points will be real tough to come by as the get adjusted to CU’s excellent corner play. Colorado will probably get a big play score or two but will also struggle to move the ball consistently.

Things open up a lot more than people expect during the second half, in a back and forth contest. There’s no one in college football I’d rather have running an offense, down a score and on it’s final possession, than Luke Falk. The Cougs are 10-5 in games decided by less than a touchdown with 4 under center.

That’s what it comes down to in Boulder.

Final Score: WSU 38 - 35 CU

And Brian...

“Both teams are similar in that they have a lot of weapons on offense, including a veteran QB on both sides, and both teams are stronger on defense than they’ve been in years. I really think these two programs are in similar positions right now, and that’ll make for a close game. I don’t think Falk and the Cougars are going to have an easy time like they’ve had in recent weeks. Playing at home will fuel Colorado, I think. They love playing at home and have played very well this year. In the end, I think it’s close all the way, but I see Colorado pulling off a 35-31 victory.”


BONUS

Jeff Nusser (big boss man), Craig Powers (beer aficionado), PJ Kendall (GAMBLETRON lead operator / beer understudy to Craig), and myself will be heading down to Boulder for the game — say hi if you see us! Folsom has long been on my bucket list and so I took the opportunity to ask a resident for some can’t miss stops.

“If the weather is decent, you have to go up to the foothills and hike around a bit. Boulder is known for its outdoor recreation, so take advantage of it if you can. Chautauqua Park is a popular place, but it’s a great place to get out in nature a bit – and it’s close to town. Then of course, you have to hit the Pearl Street Mall for, if nothing else, the people watching.”


Huge thanks to Brian for lending his expertise. You can catch up on all his CU coverage at BuffZone.com . We’ll be at the Harvest House Pre-Game function on Saturday and probably not-hiking in the beautiful foothills at any other point in time on this trip. More likely a parking lot with Fireball. We’re simple people. Go Cougs.