Andy Cross / The Denver Post
Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa, second from right, and other defenders bring down Sefo Liufau in last season’s game between the Cougars and the Buffs.

Throughout his coaching career, Washington State’s Mike Leach has been well known for his explosive air raid offense.

Led by quarterback Luke Falk, the Cougars are once again a threat to score at any time.

This season, however, the Cougars (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) have actually been better on defense. It’s that side of the ball that has really impressed Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, whose Buffs (4-3, 1-3) visit Pullman, Wash., on Saturday.

“On defense, they’re stemming and moving everywhere and playing good defense,” MacIntyre said. “They played good defense last year, too.”

Offensively, the Cougars are sixth in the Pac-12 in scoring and sixth in yards.

Defensively, they are third in scoring (allowing 21.1 points per game) and second in total defense (288.3 yards per game allowed). They lead the Pac-12 in third-down defense, allowing conversions just 27.6 percent of the time.

“They’ve got most of their players back from last year, so they’re better at the system,” MacIntyre said. “When their offense is scoring, they’re able to do a little more exotic stuff on the front, stunt and do that type of thing and create play. I think that’s definitely helping them.”

Lineman Hercules Mata’afa leads the defense. Although undersized for a tackle at 6-foot-2, 252 pounds, he is among the national leaders in sacks (6 ½ ) and tackles for loss (12.0).

What has really impressive MacIntyre, however, is the Cougars’ pass defense, which ranks seventh in the country.

“Their corners seems a little more aggressive this year to me,” he said. “They’re playing a little bit better press coverage and that type of thing. That’s helped eliminate getting some third downs on them and keeping the drives going. That’s the area that looks to me they’ve improved the most on. Their secondary was good (last year), but I think they’ve gone up a notch and played a lot tighter coverage.”

Wazzu’s strength on defense, especially in the secondary, will be a challenge for CU quarterback Steven Montez, but the Buffs are hoping it’s a challenge he can handle.

“Hopefully we’ll get keys that we can make it easy,” MacIntyre said. “You can’t see all 11 moving. You have to have certain keys you’re looking at. Our offensive line has to be able to handle all of that and our center has to be able to communicate that. They stem every snap, so that’s something we’ll work on all week and we did well against it last year. Hopefully we can do well against it this year.”

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