It’s hard not to double take when reading that Washington and Colorado are set to square off in the PAC-12 championship. Just eight years ago the Huskies didn’t win a single game. Even more recently, Colorado didn’t win a conference game in 2014. But there they are, sitting atop the conference rankings and in position to contend for a spot in the college football playoffs.
These two teams are for real. They both have solid defenses and are well coached. Both will rise to the challenge and are eager to don the title of PAC-12 Champion. Here are a few of the Buffs that will be difference makers on Friday.
#13 SR 6’4” 230-pound QB Sefo Liufau
2016 stats: 179 of 277 for 2150 yards, 64.6% completion, 11 TD, 3 INT, 146 carries for 483 yards, 3.3 YPC, 7 rushing TD
Scoop: The Bellarmine Prep has rewritten history for Colorado during his four years as their quarterback. The senior has set 83 school records, including total yards, passing yards, and passing touchdowns in a career. He’s a solid passer who makes very few mistakes. This year hasn’t been his most productive throwing the ball in terms of sheer yards and touchdowns, but he’s averaging a career-high 7.76 yards per attempt and has thrown only three interceptions. Where Liufau separates himself from other solid quarterbacks with his ability to run the ball. Psalm Wooching called him a fullback-quarterback hybrid. He’s not afraid to take his 230-pound body and throw it against an oncoming linebacker. He’s a competitive, experienced quarterback that has helped this team grow from the worst team in the conference to the best team in the PAC-12 south.
#23 JR 5’8” 190-pound RB Phillip Lindsay
2016 stats: 211 carries for 1136 yards, 5.4 YPC, 44 receptions for 371 yards, 16 total TD
Scoop: Phillip Lindsay is the first 1000 yard rusher for Colorado since Rodney Stewart in 2010. He’s not a big back, but he runs with the same physical, hard nosed mentality that fits the Buffaloes’ identity so well. He’s also a threat out of the backfield as a receiver; he even has a 100-yard receiving game under his belt. He’s the perfect centerpiece for this run-oriented offense.
#2 JR 5’9” 185-pound WR Devin Ross
2016 stats: 65 receptions for 758 yards, 11.7 YPC, 5 TD
Scoop: Devin Ross is the most versatile receiving threat for Colorado. He has the speed to run by anybody you put in front of him, and is a big play threat as a result. However, he also is reliable on short to intermediate routes as well. As a result, he has the most receptions on the team. His size and speed suggest he’s only good for taking the top off the defense, but he’s also been a go-to-guy for Liufau when the Buffs have needed to extend drives.
#1 JR 5’11” 180-pound WR Shay Fields
2016 stats: 50 receptions for 819 yards, 16.4 YPC, 9 TD
Scoop: Fields is Colorado’s big play receiver. His seven career plays of 60 yards or longer are indicative of how much of a deep threat he is. He averages more yards per reception than any Buffalo with 10 catches this year. He also can turn a screen or short pass into a big gain with his shiftiness. The end zone is never out of reach when Fields is lined up out wide.
#92 SR 6’3” 300-pound DE Jordan Carrell
2016 stats: 38 total tackles, 6.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks
Scoop: Since arriving from American River College in 2015, Jordan Carrell has been a dominant presence on the Colorado defensive line. He’s accumulated 14 tackles for loss and six sacks in the past two seasons. His size as a defensive end makes him tough to keep out of the backfield.
#98 SR 6’5” 230-pound LB Jimmie Gilbert
2016 stats: 53 total tackles, 12.0 TFL, 9.0 sacks, 6 FF
Scoop: Last year’s team leader in sacks has taken his game to the next level this year. His nine sacks are third in the conference, while his six forced fumbles lead the PAC-12. He’s a long, strong athlete who seems virtually unblockable at times.
#31 SR 6’1” 220-pound LB Kenneth Olugbode
2016 stats: 86 total tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT
Scoop: Olugdobe has reached 80 tackles for his third straight season. He’s not the biggest inside linebacker out there, but he’s a solid tackler and has the quickness to cover quite a bit of range in run support and coverage.
#4 SR 6’0” 205-pound CB Chidobe Awuzie
2016 stats: 54 total tackles, 6.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 INT, 10 PD
Scoop: Quarterbacks seldom challenge senior standout Chidobe Awuzie, and when they do the usually regret it. He covers like a blanket and can even make an impact blitzing off the edge. He’s the toughest corner the Huskies have faced since Adoree’ Jackson.
#9 SR 6’1” 205-pound S Tedric Thompson
2016 stats: 54 total tackles, 3.5 TFL, 7 INT, 21 PD
Scoop: Second Team All PAC-12 selection Tedric Thompson is tied for the PAC-12 in passes defended with 21, while having sole possession of the conference lead in interceptions. He’s a ballhawk safety that is also pretty solid in run support.
#21 SR 6’3” 195-pound CB Ahkello Witherspoon
2016 stats: 21 total tackles, 1 INT, 21 PD
Scoop: Ahkello Witherspoon is cut from the same cloth as Kevin King. He’s long, physical, and can make athletic plays on the ball. Between him and Awuzie, the Buffs are plenty confident in leaving their corners on an island and letting them shut receivers down.
What the Colorado offense is like
The Buffs are solid offensively, scoring about 35 points on nearly 470 yards per game. Those both rank fifth in the PAC-12. But what’s interesting is they’ve run the second most plays in the conference. Consequently, their 5.7 yards per play is fourth lowest in the PAC-12. However, that doesn’t mean their offense is ineffective. Colorado is the conference’s third best offense on third down, converting more than 46% of the time. This allows them to hold onto the ball for almost 32 minutes per game and move the ball downfield.
The Buffs, like almost every team in college football, love to spread defenses out. They’ll usually line up in either three receiver sets with a tight end or come out four wide. But the Buffs don’t throw the ball as much as other spread offenses. In fact, they’ve run the ball more than any team in the conference. They rank 10th in the PAC-12 in yards per carry, but average over 200 yards per game and have scored the second most touchdowns on the ground. They relentlessly commit to running the ball to find their rhythm offensively. It’s their quarterback, Sefo Liufau, that allows them to do that. He’s a big, physical runner that Psalm Wooching described as a fullback mixed with a quarterback. He runs the ball up the middle and isn’t afraid to take on hits from linebackers. As a run-threat quarterback, he opens up space for Second Team All PAC-12 running back Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay isn’t huge, but he’s physical and doesn’t go down easily. Kyle Evans is a quicker change of pace back.
Their deepest group offensively is their receiving corps. They start three junior wideout who all bring different skills and talents to the table. Their two leading receivers, Devin Ross and Shay Fields, are both on the smaller end, however both possess big play capability. Bryce Bobo rounds off the receiving corps as their big target. He’s the best of the three at going up and getting ’50-50 balls’ using his size and strength. The coach’s son, Jay MacIntyre, is also a solid fourth receiver that can also return punts.
This isn’t the flashiest offense the Huskies have faced, but it just might be the toughest. They have playmakers at every position and are capable of sustaining long drives. Getting off the field on third down will be imperative trying to stop this offense, but that’s easier said than done.
What the Colorado Defense looks like
The defensive makeup of the Buffs is very reminiscent of the Huskies beyond the fact that both teams run a three four. Colorado has a massive defensive front, starting three seniors that weigh a combined 920 pounds. Their linebacking corps is a little on the lighter side, but it features a long, rangy pass rusher while the rest are effective against the run. Their secondary is mean, physical, and confident challenging any and all receivers at the line of scrimmage and willing to engage in one-on-one battles. The defense is experienced, talented, and tough.
Like most stout defenses, success starts at the defensive line. Colorado limits opponents to about 135 yards per game and yields under four yards per carry. Josh Tupou, who’s cousins with former Husky Sifa Tufunga, is a menacing presence at the nose tackle position. Jordan Carrell, who’s second on the team with five sacks, and Samson Kafovalu, who has the most tackles of the defensive linemen, do their damage off the edges.
The only First Team All PAC-12 Buffalo was sack specialist Jimmie Gilbert. His length and speed off the edge has enabled him to register nine sacks this season. Kenneth Olugbode leads the team in tackles and anchors the middle of the defense. Rick Gamboa and Addison Gillam have both bene productive as inside linebackers this season, combining for 100 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. N.J. Falo, the other starting outside linebacker, was voted as the most improved linebacker on the team this spring.
Where Colorado’s defense separates themselves from other good defenses is in their secondary. Their secondary is deep, experienced, physical, and talented. Corners Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Whitherspoon along with safety Tedric Thompson were all named Second Team All PAC-12. Awuzie is the Sidney Jones of the Buffs. He’s not overwhelmingly big, but he can cover top receivers like a blanket. He’s also solid in run support, garnering six tackles for loss this season. Ahkello Witherspoon is Colorado’s Kevin King. He’s a rangy, athletic corner that can disrupt passing lanes with his length. Tedric Thompson is a versatile playmaker with a nose for the ball. Even Afolabi Laguda, their overlooked defensive back, makes his presence felt; he’s third on the team in tackles and has an interception. The talent and playmaking ability of this defensive backfield allows the Buffs to focus on stopping the run; they have the passing lanes on lock. Colorado is the only team in the conference to allow less than 200 yards per game through the air and quarterbacks, on average, can’t manage to complete 50 percent of their passes against this group. Only the Huskies and Utes have more interceptions than the Buffs.
This defense is rock solid top to bottom. Their combination of discipline, aggression, talent, and experience will make it hard to rack up points against them; they allow only 18.8 points per game.
Keys to the Game
1. Limit John Ross and Dante Pettis - They put a lot of trust on their corners to cover great receivers and often leave them on islands. Both Ross and Pettis have big play ability. Someone is going to have to win this matchup. For the Buffs' sake, they hope it’s Awuzie and Witherspoon.
2. Dodge Thunder and Lightning - The Buffs are one of three PAC-12 teams to allow fewer than four yards per carry. However, few teams have as solid of a one-two punch in the run game as the Huskies do. They’ll have to find a way to stop not only Myles Gaskin, but also Lavon Coleman. That’s one heck of a tall order.
3. Capitalize in the red zone - Both teams are great in the red zone offensively and defensively. The Huskies dominated WSU in the red zone last week making big play after big play. Whoever can take advantage of their red zone opportunities will have a big upper hand on Friday.
1. Win third downs - The Buffs defend at a conference-best 30.2 percent opponent conversion on third down. When they have the ball they move the chains on 46.3 percent of their third downs. Getting off the field on defense and keeping drives alive on offense will be essential in trying to deter Colorado’s ball control offense and star-studded defense.
2. Request a house call - The Buffs defense is great, there’s no way around that. However there’s one way the Huskies can do themselves a favor trying to score points. Colorado has allowed more combined punt and kick return yards than any team in the conference. They surrendered a punt return touchdown and a 93 yard kick return against Utah last week. Washington has two of the most dangerous returners in the conference. A return for a touchdown would be just what the doctor ordered.
3. Cause havoc upfront - The Huskies showed a willingness to blitz against the Cougars last Friday and it paid off. This week could see Washington try that again. The Buffs have allowed the fifth most sacks in the conference. As Washington fans have seen, forcing pressure plays a big role in stymying an offense.