BOULDER, Colo. – The signs may not be ominous, but they certainly aren’t promising either.
On one side of the ball is Washington State’s offensive line, featuring a new, injury-forced starter at center – for the second consecutive week – and coming off a game in which it gave up six sacks. That number harkens back to the bad days of the past two years, when the Cougars gave up more than 100 combined.
They’ll be trying to protect senior quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, who may lead the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, but since undergoing major reconstructive knee surgery a couple years ago, won’t make anyone think of Michael Vick.
On the other side is a Colorado defense that, while giving up more than 30 points on average in its first four games, has attacked the passer with abandon. The Buffs, who use a three-man line and bring a fourth rusher from about anywhere this side of Denver, lead the conference in sacks with 14.
And did we say it’s Colorado’s first-ever Pac-12 game on Saturday and more than 50,000 Buff fans are expected?
“We’ve got to be good,” said WSU coach Paul Wulff this week. “We’ve got to block, we’ve got to execute. We’ve got to win our battles.”
The Cougars (2-1) have some weapons. They have the most efficient and most productive passing offense in the conference going into today’s opener. And new starting center Matt Goetz, a sophomore who played one year at Navarro JC in Texas after redshirting at Texas Tech, earned praise from Wulff this week.
Colorado’s secondary has been hit hard by injuries, losing five cornerbacks already this season – one or two may return this week – and moving a running back (Brian Lockridge) to the spot earlier this week.
That, and the depth of the WSU passing game, worries Colorado coach Jon Embree.
“You have to focus on their whole receiving unit,” Embree said. “They do a very good job with their passing unit as a whole.”
Despite the injuries, the Buffaloes (1-3) lead the Pac-12 in pass defense, yielding a measly 183.5 yards a game. The key component in that has been their pressure.
Outside linebacker Josh Hartigan is tied for the conference lead with four sacks, while defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe and inside linebacker Douglas Rippy have split five more. The Buffaloes use a 3-4 and it’s up to the WSU offensive line to identify which Colorado backer is coming.
It’s not easy.
“Their two defensive ends are, to me, the most active players we’ve seen to this point,” Wulff said, including Hartigan in that group. “They have an ability to give you pressure on the edge and inside with those linebackers.”
“We’ve got some ends that can come off the ball, we’ve got some big guys inside to get some push and we’ve got some backers and DB types who can blitz,” defensive coordinator Greg Brown told the Boulder Daily Camera this week. “It’s a little bit of everything.”