PULLMAN – Amidst the smoky haze that covered Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Washington State wide receiver Renard Bell could see the heads of his teammates dropping one by one.
The Cougars officially lost their first game of the 2017 season just a stroke after 11 last Friday night, but Bell was confident they effectively handed the game over at least an hour earlier.
“Just watching it, you can see that mid-third quarter we just stopped playing,” he said. “We were just trying to get over with this game and get on a plane and get back to Pullman. And we should never play like that. It was kind of bad watching the film and just seeing ourselves run around like that, because we never do that.”
But the turbulence didn’t end for WSU players once they escaped the playing field and the small parade of Cal fans that had rushed onto it. Surely, it was a solemn plane ride back to the Palouse and, as Bell alluded to, a rough week of game film. All that did was remind the Cougars they gave up nine sacks, committed seven turnovers and ceded 102 rushing yards to Cal running back Vic Enwere, who poses a definite challenge, but probably wouldn’t make the cut if you had to rank the Pac-12’s top-10 rushing threats.
But in the next three weeks, the Cougars (6-1, 3-1) will be tested by three players who would easily crack the top-5 of that list, beginning Saturday night at 7:45 with Colorado (4-3, 1-3) and senior tailback Phillip Lindsay (995 rushing yards in 2017).
WSU needs to be better on defense, and practically everywhere else, if the Cougars hope to win their homecoming game and keep themselves in the thick of the Pac-12 North race with Stanford and Washington.
A slew of the 2016 Buffaloes who made life hard on the Cougars in a WSU loss in Boulder last season are now on NFL rosters, but Colorado, despite a paltry start to Pac-12 play, is still stocked with playmakers on either side of the ball.
In passing situations, Luke Falk and the Cougars will have to be extra cautious while throwing to Isaiah Oliver’s side of the field. The 6-1 junior corner doubles as a track star in Boulder and his freakish athleticism has twice allowed him to earn All-Pac-12 mention in the decathlon.
“They fly around, they’re aggressive,” WSU coach Mike Leach said of the Buffaloes. “Big, strong aggressive guys that bat everything around they see, so we’ve got to stay away from them. We’ve got to either knock them down, run around them or throw over the top of them.”
And especially not directly at them. Falk is coming off the worst statistical game of his career – one in which he threw a career-high five interceptions and didn’t throw a touchdown for just the third time as WSU’s starter.
“I think he made some bad reads, I think he got hit way too much,” Leach said, “and I think when a quarterback doesn’t get in a rhythm, then he develops some trust issues back there. Most guys don’t come out of it at all. He does some and he does it better than most quarterbacks I’ve had, but you’ve got to get in a rhythm back there.”
With a 100 percent chance of precipitation and strong wind gusts expected on Saturday night, rhythm could be a hard thing to come by for Falk or his counterpart on the opposite sideline, Colorado sophomore Steven Montez.
Montez isn’t necessarily a spitting image of his predecessor, Sefo Liufau, who’s now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but both are able passers who can hurt you with their escapability.
“You catch yourself a little bit because we review a lot of the games we’ve played against them in the past. You kind of catch yourself in terms of which one’s at quarterback,” WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “… He’s a confident quarterback back there and certainly I think Liufau at times seemed very excited to almost be a fullback back there and get those tough yards, but they ask Montez to do the same.”
It still projects to be quite the test for the Buffaloes, who narrowely beat Oregon State last week – the Beavers are still without an FBS win – are 10-point underdogs and have lost 27 straight road games against ranked opposition. That’s the longest active streak among Power Five teams.