CU secondary vs. WSU receivers
Colorado's strength on defense is its secondary, where the Buffs are loaded with talent and experience. Washington State is loaded with talent at receiver, with three players among the top six in the Pac-12 in receptions per game. Washington State quarterback Luke Falk is a master at getting rid of the ball quickly — often within 1.5 or 2 seconds after the snap. Falk is less effective when he has to wait much longer than that for a receiver to get open, so it's imperative that the Buffs are sharp on their coverage early in plays. That will give the CU front seven more time to harass to Falk and make life tougher on the Wazzu passing game.
Buffaloes at a glance
Record: 4-7 (1-6 Pac-12); lost to USC, 27-24, last week.
Passing — Cade Apsay, Fr.: 25 of 34, 199 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT (Junior Sefo Liufau leads the Buffs in passing but he is out for the season with a foot injury).
Rushing — Phillip Lindsay, So.: 115 carries, 527 yards, 6 TD.
Receiving — Nelson Spruce, Sr.: 74 catches, 822 yards, 3 TD.
Tackles — Rick Gamboa, Fr.: 73 tackles (42 solo).
3 questions facing CU
1. How will QB Cade Apsay handle his first career start?
The redshirt freshman quarterback had never really played much until last week, when he took over for injured Sefo Liufau and played the final three quarters against USC. He played well in that game but now has to tackle a starting assignment for the first time. In recent history, CU quarterbacks have struggled in their starting debut. Making his debut on the road, against a ranked opponent, is a tough task. CU will need Apsay to stay composed and not get rattled by the crowd or the ups and downs of the game.
2. Can the CU defense get consistent pressure on the quarterback?
Washington State's Luke Falk is a great quarterback, but like most quarterbacks, he's not as good when he's being harassed by the defense. WSU allows 3.5 sacks per game (124th in the country), which isn't as bad as it looks because of how much the Cougars throw the ball. Still, that statistic shows that the WSU offensive line is vulnerable. CU has to find to a way to exploit that and make Falk uncomfortable.
3. Will the Buffs' ground attack lead the way?
CU is at its best when it is running the ball well. Unfortunately for the Buffs, they don't do that consistently. Washington State has the worst run defense in the country, allowing 206.7 yards per game. From game to game, CU never knows which tailback will be the lead back, but it doesn't matter. Somehow, the Buffs need to find a way to rack up a lot of yards and first downs — and touchdowns would be nice, too — with its run game. That'll take pressure off of Apsay, but it'll also help to keep Falk off the field.
Bottom line: There are a lot of things stacked up against the Buffs this week, including the fact that they are putting their offense into the hands of an inexperienced freshman quarterback. Yet this is an opportunity for CU to take a step forward and finally pick up a big victory under head coach Mike MacIntyre. Regardless of CU's bowl chances — and there is, remarkably, an outside chance of getting in — the Buffs would love to finish this season with some momentum.
Cougars at a glance
Record: 7-3 (5-2 Pac-12); beat UCLA, 31-27, last week.
Passing — Luke Falk, So.: 391 of 556, 4,067 yards, 35 TD, 8 INT.
Rushing — Gerard Wicks, So.: 82 carries, 434 yards, 3 TD.
Receiving — Gabe Marks, Jr.: 81 catches, 957 yards, 13 TD.
Tackles — Peyton Pelluer, So: 84 tackles (50 solo), 9.5 TFL.
3 questions facing WSU
1. Can the defense make life miserable for CU quarterback Cade Apsay?
The Cougars don't get to the quarterback a lot (2.3 times per game), but Apsay has been sacked a lot in his limited playing time this season. The youngster has a lot of good qualities but he has yet to learn how to avoid sacks. He also has a suspect offensive line in front him. That could lead to a big day for the Washington State pass rush.
2. How will the Cougars handle the hype?
For the first time since October of 2006, Washington State is ranked among the Top 25, and the Cougars are starting to get some national recognition. Any attention the Cougars get is well deserved, because this is a good team. It could backfire, though, if the Cougars get too caught up in the hype this week. WSU needs to brush all of that aside and keep doing what it has done all year.
3. Can the Cougars pull away from the Buffs?
Six times this year, Washington State has played a game in which the winning points were scored with less than 2:20 left on the clock. That's made for some exciting finishes, but the Cougars are just 3-3 in those games. They are 4-0 when building up a lead and taking a nice cushion into the final few minutes. Because CU has struggled so much in recent years, the longer the Buffs are in the game the more confidence they will gain. Washington State needs to try to avoid that from happening.
Bottom line: This is a very good Washington State team that still has plenty to play for down the stretch. The Cougars already know they are going to a bowl game, but they've got a chance to build their resume and get to a higher-quality bowl. Sitting one game back of Stanford in the Pac-12 North Division, they've also got an outside shot at winning the division and getting to the Pac-12 title game.
-- Brian Howell