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CU football: Buffs’ pass defense faces stress test against Washington State

  • Washington State sophomore quarterback Luke Falk leads the country with...

    Ryan Kang / Associated Press

    Washington State sophomore quarterback Luke Falk leads the country with 406.7 passing yards per game, and his 35 touchdown passes rank second nationally.



Game at a glance

Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (4-7, 1-6 Pac-12) at No. 24 Washington State Cougars (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12).

Kickoff: 8:51 p.m.. MST Saturday.

Where: Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. Capacity: 32,952; Turf: FieldTurf.


Radio: KOA (850 AM/94.1 FM). Pregame starts at 6:30 p.m.

Odds: Washington State by 15.

Coaches: Colorado — Mike MacIntyre (10-25, third season; 30-46 career); WSU — Mike Leach (19-28, fourth season; 103-71 career).

Series: CU leads 5-3 and has won all three games played in the state of Washington.

Given the choice, Justin Solis would rather face a high-volume running team than a high-volume passing team.

This week, Solis and his Colorado teammates don’t have a choice.

On Saturday, the Buffaloes (4-7, 1-6 Pac-12) will travel to Pullman, Wash., to take on No. 24 Washington State (7-3, 5-2) and its high-powered aerial attack.

It may be the toughest test yet for CU’s pass defense.

“I’m excited,” cornerback Kenneth Crawley said. “They throw the ball a lot, so it gives us more opportunities to catch picks.”

While that’s true, Washington State’s Luke Falk has been as dangerous as any quarterback in the country, and the Buffs know their ability to slow him down is critical.

“Their quarterback, Luke Falk, makes them go,” CU head coach Mike MacIntyre said. “I think this system, it all goes back to their trigger man.”

Falk is just a sophomore, but the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder leads the country with 406.7 passing yards per game, and his 35 touchdown passes rank second nationally. He has completed a conference-best 70.3 percent of his throws.

Limiting Falk’s effectiveness starts up front, where Solis and the rest of the CU defensive linemen will be challenged all night. Washington State throws an average of 57 passes per game.

“I would say it’s harder to pass rush 50 times a game,” Solis said. “I think that takes a lot more effort for a defensive lineman. You have to rush, and then after that they expect us to run downfield and maybe make a play.”

CU is hoping its linemen can make some plays in the backfield instead of downfield against the Cougars.

“It’s definitely one of our top goals this week,” Solis said of pressuring Falk. “Their quarterback is very good, very accurate and his O-line does a good job of protecting him. We’ve been watching film, and teams that have been able to get him off his spot and get some hands in his face and get some pressure on him have been successful against him.”

Because there will be so many pass-rush opportunities, the Buffs will do their best to rotate linemen into the game throughout the evening.

“You’re going to have to substitute in because you don’t want to get so worn down that you can’t get some pressure on the quarterback,” MacIntyre said.

While Washington State does have a solid offensive line, the Cougars have given up 35 sacks this season. Seven of those came in a loss to California. Seven more came in an overtime win against Oregon, and six came in a last-second, come-from-behind win against UCLA last week.

Getting that type of pressure on Falk will be a challenge for CU.

The Buffs have generated 24 sacks, but many of those have come on blitzes, and against a team like Washington State, blitzing can be dangerous.

“If you bring a lot of people against Washington State, with all of their screens and all their jail-break screens, receiver and running back screens, they can make you pay,” MacIntyre said.

For the most part, MacIntyre said CU’s pass rush has improved this season, but he’s not satisfied.

“Of course it’s not as good as you want it,” he said. “You always want it better. (The 24 sacks), that’s good; it’s not great, it’s not super, it’s not terrible. You’d like to have more. We’d like to create more pass rush with just four (rushers).

“The offensive line does a good job, but we’ve got to be able to disrupt the quarterback somehow, someway.”

That’s where Crawley and his mates in the secondary can help out. The longer they can blanket the Cougars’ receivers, the more time CU’s rushers will have to get to Falk.

“(Falk) could kill you if you’re not on the receivers,” Crawley said.

That, alone, will be a challenge, Crawley said, because, “It’s the best receivers we’ll see thus far, in terms of route running, contesting the ball, things like that.”

Certainly it’s a tough task ahead of CU this week, but it’s not mission impossible. The Buffs do rank fifth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, and only two teams in the conference have more interceptions than CU (12) this season.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Crawley said. “We’re practicing to get challenged.”

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.