BOULDER, Colo. – The No. 20 Washington State Cougars overcame evaded sacks, dropped passes and a missed field goal in the early goings of their heavyweight bout at No. 12 Colorado.
But they could not overcome senior Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau who returned from an injury to lead the decisive drive in CU’s 38-24 victory. The Cougars had not lost since Sept. 10.
“I just thought we were incohesive as far as doing our jobs,” Mike Leach said. “There were times somebody would do it, and then we’d make a good play and then all of a sudden we’d turn somebody loose. I thought that’s what happened on defense. Same thing happened on offense, it just manifested itself differently.”
Liufau was injured in the fourth quarter, but returned one drive later to lead the Buffaloes on an eight-play 63-yard drive that consumed 3:24 and left the Cougars down by two touchdowns with just over four minutes to make up the difference.
Liufau, a Tacoma native, finished with 345 passing yards, and ran for another 108 yards and three touchdowns. His running proved especially valuable on third down, with CU converting on 13-of-21 attempts. The Cougars converted just 4-of-16 third-down tries.
On the ensuing drive, WSU quarterback Luke Falk fumbled as he was sacked by Jimmie Gilbert and CU’s Addison Gillam secured the ball.
The Buffaloes pass defense, ranked among the country’s best, lived up to the billing and WSU was unable to move the ball quickly down the field. The Buffaloes broke up eight of Falk’s passes, and the prolific quarterback who entered the game with the nation’s best passing percentage completed just 26-of-52 attempts, finishing with 325 yards and three touchdowns.
“They played pretty sound ball, but we really shot ourselves in the foot,” Falk said. “We were moving the ball real good, and then we just could not convert on those key downs and key situations. It’s really disappointing because that’s all on us and us not doing our jobs.”
While Falk completed only 16-of-34 first-half pass attempts, thanks in part to at least three dropped passes, he connected on deep throws, such as a 46-yard touchdown bomb to running back Jamal Morrow, to keep the WSU offense moving.
WSU led 17-14 at halftime.
The Cougars were turned away from the multiple scoring opportunities in the first half. Kicker Erik Powell missed a 51-yard attempt, and CU counterpart Davis Price badly missed from 38 yards with just six seconds left in the half.
The Cougars also missed a scoring opportunity when star receiver Gabe Marks dropped what would have been a 26-yard touchdown on a drive that ended with the Cougars turning the ball over on downs. A touchdown would have put the Cougars up 21-7.
The WSU defense played well, but Liufau kept the Buffaloes in the game. On third-and-three in the second quarter Liufau slipped out of a sack at the WSU 27-yard line and converted. He later ran the ball in from three yards out to tie the score at 14.
While Liufau is not an especially fast runner, he is elusive enough to avoid initial tacklers and is a physical runner who breaks tackles and picks up extra yardage. On CU’s first drive of the second half he had runs of 5, 8, 16 and 7 yards, the last of which went for a touchdown to put CU up 21-17.
“He ran right through us,” Leach said. “I think that was a turning point where they got the upper hand.”
The Cougars turned to the run game late in the third quarter to regain the lead. Facing fourth-and-1 near midfield, Morrow ripped off a 30-yard run and Gerard Wicks followed with 21 more yards on the ground.
John Thompson, filling it at Y-receiver for the injured River Cracraft, finished the drive with a diving catch of Falk’s seven-yard touchdown pass.
But Liufau, who like his teammates has never played in a bowl game, played with the fire of somebody who wants to end his career in a prestigious postseason destination. He quickly moved the Buffaloes down the field, helped by a 27-yard reception from running back Phillip Lindsay.
He finished the drive himself with an 11-yard touchdown run to give CU a 28-24 lead. He brought the CU offense along in similar fashion on the next Buffaloes drive, throwing passes of 17 and 18 yards. But he was injured on a four-yard run, shortly after becoming the second quarterback in school history to pass for 300 yards and run for 100 in the same game.
“We had real trouble tackling him, especially in the second half,” linebacker Parker Henry said.
His backup, Steven Montez, was the first to accomplish the feat, earlier this year, when he started three games. Montez was unable to pick up a first down, but the Buffaloes extended their lead on a 46-yard field goal.
With the win, CU (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) controls its own destiny in terms of getting to the Rose Bowl. So does WSU (8-3, 7-1), which will win the Pac-12 North if it beats Washington in the Apple Cup.
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