BOULDER, Colo. (The Sports Xchange) – When Washington State plays at Colorado on Saturday, it will be battle of Pac-12 division leaders.
Nobody saw that coming.
The 12th-ranked Buffaloes (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) are the most surprising team in the country, considering they were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South in a vote of league media and had only five conference victories in their first five seasons in the league.
Washington State (8-2, 7-0) opened the season with a home loss to lower-division Eastern Washington and a defeat at Boise State. The Cougars have since ripped off eight consecutive victories — their longest streak since 1930 and the second-longest streak in the nation behind Alabama (22).
Two years ago, Colorado and Washington State finished last in their respective divisions. Now, this game — kicking off at 1:30 p.m. from Boulder — is the biggest in the Pac-12.
“Isn’t that great,” said Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre.
“It is exciting for both teams. It is exciting for Washington State and Mike Leach and it is exciting for the University of Colorado and our staff. I am so excited for our fans. This is a special time in Colorado football.”
Colorado is one game up in the loss column on USC and Utah, the only other teams that can win the South.
The Buffaloes likely have to win their final two games against ranked opponents to take the title and advance to the conference championship game. The Buffs finish the regular season at home against No. 11 Utah.
Washington State’s division-tile hopes will likely come down to next week’s Apple Cup game against seventh-ranked Washington, which is one game back of the Cougars. WSU will have to navigate its tough final two regular-season games without senior wide receiver River Cracraft.
His college career is over after he tore his left ACL in last week’s 56-21 win over California. He and fellow senior Gabe Marks are the only duo in Pac-12 history to each have 200 career catches at the same time.
“He’s a great player,” coach Mike Leach said of Cracraft. “He contributed early in his career, which I thought was impressive.”
Washington State junior quarterback Luke Falk is second nationally with 361.0 passing yards per game, directing Leach’s Air Raid attack. Falk last week set a school record with his 23rd career 300-yard game.
Marks set the Pac-12 career receptions record last week; he has 295.
Colorado counters with the best pass defense in the Pac-12, allowing 176.9 yards per game through the air. Opponents are completing just 50.9 percent of their passes, the best mark in the conference.
But this WSU team also has balance, able to run the ball when the opportunity presents itself. Behind Gerard Wicks (career-high 128 yards) and James Williams (80 yards), the Cougars ran for 254 yards on 31 carries last week against Cal, their highest total in Leach’s five seasons as head coach.
“It helps a lot,” Marks said of the run game.
“I don’t like to admit it sometimes, because the run game affects my life. But it has affected my life in a good way now. Back in the day, we’d just run it and nothing would get done, and it was like don’t run it. Just throw me the ball. …
“Balance is good. We’ve got some good balance right now.”
Colorado is solid and balanced, too.
Senior Sefo Liufau, who set a school record last week with his 36th career start at quarterback, rarely makes a killer mistake. He recently had a streak of 152 passes without an interception.
The Buffs can run the ball (204.7 yards per game) behind tailback Phillip Lindsay. They can stop the run (131.5 yards per game).
They have forced a turnover in a national-best 23 consecutive games and are tied for 18th in turnover margin at 0.7 per game.
Bottom line: They Buffs don’t beat themselves. Their only losses this season came at Michigan (they were leading when Liufau left with an injury) and at USC.
And, so, Saturday will mark the biggest home game of Colorado’s tenure in the Pac-12.
“Giving people something to believe in has always been a part of this season,” wide receiver Shay Fields said on the team’s website. “Folsom the last couple of years hasn’t been that packed. But since we won those first three, the fans have been outstanding. They’ve gotten the feeling that CU is back and that’s exciting.”