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PREVIEW: More than you need to know about the Cougs vs. Buffaloes

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The Washington State Cougars host the Colorado Buffaloes in a battle of two good offenses against two bad defenses.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth game of the conference season is coming for the Washington State Cougars, and they are still looking for a league win. Wazzu welcomes the Colorado Buffaloes into Martin Stadium on Saturday afternoon (4pm, ESPNU), looking to make it three in row over CU by grabbing that first victory over a Pac-12 opponent in 2019.

The last two games between these programs have leaned heavily in WSU’s favor, with a combined 59-7 scoreline. The last two games in Pullman, both in the same type of cold, wet, and windy weather we are expecting this weekend, have seen the Cougs outscore the Buffs 55-3.

Those were better WSU defenses, however, and worse Colorado offenses. Under first year head coach Mel Tucker, the Buffaloes have been able to score. Much like the Cougs, however, they haven’t been able to stop anyone.

On a clear afternoon and evening, this would be the kind of matchup you’d expect to land in the realm of 100 or more combined points. However, with 10-20 mph winds and consistent rain forecasted, that may put a damper on the scoreboard fireworks.

Let’s look at the key factors as the Buffaloes head to Pullman.

When Colorado has the ball...

Colorado comes in with an impressive offensive SP+ ranking—14th nationally. Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. is the headliner. He’s a dynamic athlete that Colorado has tried to use in both the passing game and the running game.

That was until he suffered an injury against Arizona State three games ago. He left Colorado’s win over the Sun Devils early and then missed the next week’s game against Arizona. He was back for the Buff’s 45-3 loss to Oregon, catching four balls for 70 yards. He was not, however, used on an end-arounds or runs of any kind against the Ducks.

The lack of runs for Shenault could be a product of the injury, or just the fact that Colorado had limited offensive opportunities against Oregon’s very good defense. That will be interesting to watch on Saturday.

Shenault isn’t the only player on Colorado’s offense, as the last few paragraphs may lead you to believe. Senior quarterback Steven Montez has upped his production in terms of passing yards by about 30 per game, as well as gaining about half a yard more per attempt over his junior campaign.

A four-pick night that included some tipped balls against Oregon makes his interception numbers look worse, but take out that performance agains the Ducks, and he had thrown 10 touchdowns against two picks. WSU’s defense won’t provide the same level of difficulty this week.

Elsewhere at wideout, Tony Brown has had an impressive season thus far. The senior has taken advantage of expanded opportunities to post career highs in receptions (34), yards (458), and touchdowns (4). K.D. Nixon is a a big-play threat, averaging nearly 17 yards per catch, and redshirt freshman Dimitri Stanley should see plenty of action (he actually caught three balls against WSU last year).

The passing game is the strength for Colorado. The Buffs rank just 73rd overall in yards per play, but 43rd in yards per passing play (including sacks). In terms of success rate (gaining enough yards to stay on schedule), CU stays ahead of the chains on 45.2 percent of pass plays, good for 38th nationally.

On passing downs, Colorado is performing at the 25th best success rate nationally. Montez particularly excels in medium range third downs, hitting 70 percent of his passes on 3rd and 4-6 to go for an average of 8.6 yards per attempt. That works well for Colorado, which has faced the 25th lowest yards to go on third down.

Put those stats together, and you see why CU is 21st nationally in third-down success rate, converting 46.9 percent of third down opportunities.

Contrast that against WSU’s porous passing defense. The Cougs are 101st in passing success rate, 123rd in yards per pass, 95th in passing down success rate, and 87th in third down success rate. The only saving grace for WSU is that it is 21st in yards to go against on third down, but the passing defense has been so bad that has not mattered.

So, while WSU’s Air Raid might hate the windy conditions, the defense formerly known as Speed D might welcome them.

The Buffs don’t Air Raid though, and Montez only throws the ball about 35 times a game. Colorado runs roughly half the time, with carries primarily being split between Alex Fontenot (103 for 463 and four touchdowns) and Jaren Mangham (59 for 239 and three touchdowns).

Running the ball has been difficult for Colorado this season. The Buffaloes average 4.3 yards per rush (without sacks). That’s good for 105th-best in the country. Their success rate on rushes is a little better at 41 percent or 77th overall. That is thanks to a low frequency of “stuffs”, meaning no gain or loss plays. The Buffs get stuffed at or behind the line on just under 17 percent of runs (35th).

Arizona State had some rough rushing numbers before playing Wazzu as well, but the Cougs made them look pretty good. A lot of that was broken tackles by Eno Benjamin, so we will see how well a WSU run defense that ranks 103rd in success rate will fare against a Buffs rushing attack that could use a good day.

Overall, the high SP+ ranking for Colorado is a little confusing, because its peripheral stats are not entirely impressive in any spot. From an opponent adjustment standpoint, they’ve played one solid defense (ASU) and the No. 1 SP+ defense (Oregon), but the rest of the games have been against generally bad defenses.

What makes CU’s offense good, despite having a standard down (non-passing down) success rate of just 50 percent (94th), is the ability to avoid negative plays and then convert with the pass when faced with third and medium-length passing downs.

WSU has been awful defending those situations in Pac-12 play. That’s not a good fit for the Cougs.

When WSU has the ball...

As good as Colorado’s offense is, its defense is the inverse—ranked 113th in SP+. That’s left a lot of tackles to be made, and most often junior linebacker Nate Landman is making those tackles (50 solo, 67 overall).

But you are here to find out one important thing: How do the Buffs defend the pass? The answer is not well. Truthfully, they don’t defend much well, allowing 6.9 yards per pay (124th), a 63 percent success rate on standard downs (112th) and a 49 percent success rate overall (123rd).

Digging deeper, the Colorado defense has given up a 48.5 percent success rate on passes. The Buffaloes have also allowed 8.5 yards per pass (125th). When Colorado knows the other team is likely to pass it still allows them to convert nearly 40 percent of the time (112th). There isn’t much havoc created on CU’s part as well, on just 13 percent of plays (122nd).

How about the WSU passing offense? The Cougs are third in passing success rate, 13th in yards per pass, and ninth in passing down success rate.

When it comes to chunk plays, WSU gets an explosive passing play 16.5 percent of the time (35th), while Colorado allows an explosive play on 17.6 percent of passes (105th). If weather is not a factor, the Cougs should be able to sling it around with little resistance.

Weather does exist, though, and 20 mph winds can have a serious impact on downfield throws. WSU doesn’t typically turn to the run in these situations, but it might behoove the Cougs to do so. The Buffs are about as good at defending the run as they are the pass—117th in rushing success rate, 96th in yards per rush, 120th in stuff rate.

So if the Cougs turn to Max Borghi, he’s not likely to get stuffed at the line, and he has a good chance of getting to the second level with some space to make plays. Even in limited opportunities, expect the sophomore from Colorado to make a big impact in the ground game. He might be in line for another 100-yard performance.

Despite the rain and wind, I expect the Cougs to move the ball against Colorado regularly.

The Bottom Line

It’s good offense vs. bad defense on both sides. WSU’s offense is probably a tier above Colorado’s, while the Buffs defense might actually be worse than the Cougs defense. That’s why you saw the line open at -12.5 for WSU.

Still, sometimes degrees of good and bad don’t really matter when they face each other. Good just crushes bad anyway, no matter if they are 13th vs. 90th in SP+ (CU offense vs. WSU defense) or 4th vs. 113th (WSU offense vs. CU defense).

This may come down to how well each team converts its scoring opportunities—when it gets the ball into opposing territory inside the 40. If that’s the case, the Cougs have the upper hand should past results hold.

WSU has scored touchdowns on 69 percent of scoring opportunities (11th), while Colorado has allowed touchdowns on 63 percent of scoring opportunities (84th). Inside the redzone, WSU is still 17th in touchdown rate. However, this is one the few areas where the Buffs look like a halfway decent defense, allowing touchdowns at the 47th-lowest rate nationally.

It’s similar when the Buffs have the ball. WSU allows touchdowns on 55 percent of scoring opportunities (60th) but gets better in the redzone (35th in touchdown rate). Colorado has not been as effective getting into the endzone on scoring opportunities—converting for a touchdown 56 percent of the time when inside the 40, and but just 50 percent once they reach the 20.

That might be where the explosive capabilities of each team play a role. If the offenses can pop long touchdowns, they can break the defenses before they are allowed to bend. WSU has been the more explosive offense so far this season, but Colorado has been better at limiting explosive plays on defense.

On the balance, WSU is the better team. It is also playing at home. That should be enough to push the Cougs to a win, but there are enough positive variables for Colorado that they could come into Pullman and steal one.