Coming into this season, the Colorado secondary knew it could be pretty good.
Shutting down the passing offenses of Colorado State and Idaho State in the opening two weeks gave the Buffaloes a bit more confidence.
It took several weeks of dominance for senior cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to fully comprehend the special nature of this secondary, however.
"As you progress through the season, you start to get more confident in terms of, 'OK, we really can do this. This is actually what we're about,'" Witherspoon said.
CU's pass defense has been one of the best on the country, and on Saturday, the 12th-ranked Buffs (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12 South) will face their toughest test yet against the dynamic passing offense of No. 20 Washington State (8-2, 7-0 Pac-12 North).
As the two Pac-12 division leaders square off, the competition between CU's pass defense and the Wazzu air attack is a heavyweight battle in itself.
The Cougars' Luke Falk is a candidate for the Davey O'Brien Award, which honors the nation's top quarterback. He leads the country in completion percentage (73.9), and he's among the top three nationally in completions (354), attempts (479) and passing yards (3,610). He's throws 33 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
Falk's top target is senior receiver Gabe Marks, who last week established a new Pac-12 record for career receptions, with 295 — a mark previously set by former CU star Nelson Spruce just a year ago.
"I think they're excited about playing against Washington State," CU head coach Mike MacIntyre said of his secondary. "If you watch (the Cougars) on film, they're excellent at what they do. It challenges you to be at the top of your game, and I know (the Buffs) are excited about that challenge."
CU counters with a secondary that stacks up against any in the nation. The Buffs rank fourth in pass efficiency defense, sixth in opponent completion percentage (50.9) and 10th in touchdowns allowed (nine). The Buffs are also second in the nation in yards per attempt allowed (5.5); only Ohio State has been better.
Witherspoon and fellow senior Chidobe Awuzie have been exceptional in coverage. Sophomore Isaiah Oliver is developing into a lock-down corner, as well. At safety, Tedric Thompson is one of the best in the Pac-12, and Afolabi Laguda is enjoying a solid season.
"We're excited to show what we can do facing a real passing offense that can move the ball around to different receivers," Witherspoon said. "They're great across the board and Falk can throw the ball well. We're just ready to step up to the challenge and see how we compare with them."
If previous results are an indication, CU has the ability to win this battle.
Washington State has faced just one team that ranks among the top 25 in pass efficiency defense — UCLA, which ranks sixth. The Cougars won that game, but they had a season low in points (27) and passing yards (261) and threw a season-high 20 incompletions. It was the only game in which Falk failed to throw a touchdown pass.
To duplicate that success, the Buffs have to be on their game.
Falk has a quick release and his success is largely dependent on his receivers running precise routes so that they arrive to a spot at the same time the ball arrives.
The Buffs have to figure out to disrupt that timing, but they believe they can. In fact, Thompson said the real key is for the Buffs to simply do what they've done all year.
"Just stick to our game plan, listen to the coaches and trust each other, and really study film like we've always been doing," Thompson said. "Nothing's really changed to be honest."
What could change is that the Buffs are sure to give up more plays than usual, because that's the nature of playing Washington State.
However, the opposition has learned this season that big plays are tough to come by against the Buffs.
"We believe in our abilities, we believe in our skills, we believe in our preparation," Witherspoon said. "We're going to go out there and do our best to continue what we've done throughout the year.
"We're just excited, understanding that they're going to come out doing what they do, which is pass the ball, and we're going to come out and do what we do, which is press and play man to man, and may the best man win. It's exciting."