The resurgence of the Colorado football team has been one of the great stories in college football this season.
The continued rise of the Washington State program is impressive, too. After residing at the bottom of the Pac-10/12 nearly every year from 2008-2014, the Cougars (8-2, 7-0 Pac-12) are in the driver's seat for the Pac-12 North division title.
Wazzu comes to Boulder on Saturday looking to keep its perfect conference record intact.
BuffZone.com caught up with Stefanie Loh, who covers the Cougars for the Seattle Times, to get her thoughts on the team heading into Saturday's game.
BuffZone: After an 0-2 start to the season, it appeared this might be a long year in Pullman. Yet, this team hasn't lost since. How have they managed to turn things around over the last eight games?
Loh: It's really a credit to the coaches. After the Boise State loss (in Week 2), Mike Leach called out his team and said they were playing soft. He adopted a tougher approach to coaching, and to their credit, the players responded. They kept the faith, kept working and never lost hope. With each game their confidence grew, and they are at a point where confidence begets confidence and this team is convinced it knows how to win. You also have to give a hat tip to the team leaders like Luke Falk, Gabe Marks, Jamal Morrow, Peyton Pelluer and Isaac Dotson, who kept everyone level headed and working toward the same goal.
BuffZone: It's easy to see the amazing numbers produced by Luke Falk, but can you give us some insight as to what makes him so successful in this offense? And, is there anything CU can do to make life difficult for him?
Loh: Whenever Leach is asked to define what makes Luke Falk so effective, he points to two things — No. 1: How steady he is; No. 2: How smart he is and how much film he studies. Put those two together and you have a quarterback who has this ability to stay calm in the most dire situations, and his teammates take their cue from him. Moreover, he's tough to beat because he studies so much film that he's become very adept at reading defenses and putting WSU in the right plays to be successful. It's not easy to fake him out and disguise your defense. Subsequently, probably the only way to really get to him is to keep him running. The teams that have had success against the Cougars' offense have been very effective at bringing QB pressure. That's probably the only way to wear Falk down. Keep him running and he can't get into a rhythm to throw and find his receivers. And the Cougars' offense is very much rhythm-based, so if they can't get into a rhythm they'll find it difficult to get things going against Colorado.
BuffZone: Wazzu's top three running backs — James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks — have combined for 1,374 yards and 21 TD on the ground, but they've also added 106 catches for 879 yards and six touchdowns through the air. How has their success as a group impacted the offense?
Loh: For the first time in the Leach era, the Cougs have a very effective run game. As a result, defenses can't just sit back and rush three men and wait for the Cougs to force it through the air the way they used to. Now, they have to account for a legitimate run threat, and it keeps opponents much more honest, which helps the Cougars WRs. WSU is averaging 132 rush yards per game this season — the highest in Leach's head coaching career. The backs are multipurpose. They run, catch and block and have accounted for 28 touchdowns. This is the Air Raid working the way Leach conceived it, he says.
BuffZone: We started to see improvement from this team defensively last year, but they've taken it up another notch this year. What are the Cougars doing well on that side of the ball?
Loh: They're forcing takeaways. That is Alex Grinch's defensive philosophy. Don't just try to limit yardage. Try to get the ball back. In Grinch's first year he tripled the number of takeaways they had from 8 to 24. This year, they have 21 takeaways so far and these big plays have been instrumental in the Cougars success because they have given their offense more possessions. It stems from an aggressive mentality that Grinch has imparted to the defense.
BuffZone: Like CU, the Cougars have a chance, for the first time, to win their division in the Pac-12 and get to the title game. How have they handled the pressure? Or do they even feel pressure?
Loh: If they feel the pressure, they aren't letting on. The one thing this team has been very good at doing is keeping a steady focus. It sounds like such a cliche, but they've learned — perhaps due in part to their 0-2 start — that they can't take anyone for granted or overlook any opponents. So they've concentrated their efforts on "getting one week better" and "controlling what we can control." Plus, because of the Cougs' humble beginnings, this is a team that seems to thrive in the underdog role. They embrace the fact that everyone wrote them off after the 0-2 start and want to prove everyone wrong. They've also gotten a boost from the return of Robert Barber this week (he was suspended from school by the WSU student conduct board) and they're also playing with a little more motivation because they want to honor senior receiver River Cracraft, who was lost to a torn ACL in the last game. This team truly believes they have a shot at the Rose Bowl and they're incredibly motivated to get there.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.