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Analysis: With three turnovers, No. 10 Washington State buries Colorado in second half for 31-7 win

BOULDER, Colo. – This was the remedy for all the nerve-wracking, heart-thumping moments the 10th-ranked Washington State Cougars have put their fans through this season.

By the final stages of the fourth quarter Saturday at Folsom Field, WSU and Colorado had backup quarterbacks running the offense. A majority of the 45,587 fans in attendance were either in their vehicles or headed there.

And the Cougars were rejoicing on the visitors’ sideline – something they’ve seldom done this season. Four of their six Pac-12 games had been decided by six points or less. A fifth, against Oregon, came down to last five minutes of the final quarter.

It was about time the Cardiac Cougs had a week off.

Washington State’s defense forced three turnovers and quarterback Gardner Minshew overcame a sporadic first half to lead the offense into the end zone three times in the second half as the Cougars kept their magical season alive 5,000 feet above sea level, cruising past the Buffaloes 31-7.

“It felt real good, because these last three weeks have been super close,” running back James Williams said. “I’m too young to have heart attacks like I’ve been having.”

It was a mostly drama-free affair for WSU after halftime.

The Cougars, ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, outscored the Buffaloes 21-0 in the second half to preserve a six-game winning streak and improve to 9-1 overall and 6-1 in Pac-12 play.

Colorado (5-5, 2-5) lost for the fifth consecutive time and heard about it throughout the course of the game. Home fans booed the Buffaloes after their offensive drives stalled and droves of them left for the exit early in the fourth quarter when Minshew ran for a 10-yard touchdown run, effectively sealing the decision.

WSU’s Heisman Trophy candidate probably enhanced his chances of a trip to New York in December. The day won’t go down as the most accurate game of Minshew’s season, but even if he lacked his usual precision, Minshew still accounted for 21 points, throwing two touchdown passes and running for another.

Minshew finished 35 of 58 for 335 yards and picked up 26 more yards with his feet.

“The second half was (typical of Minshew),” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “… I don’t know what his completion percentage came out, but I know a whole bunch of people would like to have a completion percentage like that one time in their career. This was pretty good.”

The offensive start for WSU wasn’t, though.

Before the Cougars could get a snap off, they’d already called their first timeout.

“We got the play in, we just didn’t have time to run it,” Leach said. “And they stood over the ball. It wasn’t good. Rather than take the minus-5 (yards), we had to take a timeout.”

The Cougars whiffed on two early opportunities to score touchdowns, twice moving the ball inside Colorado’s 20-yard line without finishing the job. On one of those drives, WSU turned over the ball on downs. On the second, the Cougars squeezed out a 39-yard field goal from Blake Mazza.

By that point, though, the Buffaloes were already in front. CU took its first and only lead on the game after Travon McMillian’s big run up the middle netted the Buffs 64 yards – and allowed McMillian to rumble in for a 3-yard touchdown on the next snap.

It was the only crack in an otherwise complete game for Tracy Claeys’ defense.

“We just do our jobs and stop the run,” defensive lineman Logan Tago said. “That’s what we talk about a lot – stopping the run. Then when they pass, we’ve got guys on the edge who can affect the quarterback.”

It was a futile game for the Buffaloes on the ground. The 64-yard run by McMillian accounted for all but 11 of CU’s net rushing yards.

The Cougars finished with six tackles for loss and added to their Pac-12-leading sacks total, taking down Steven Montez three times behind the line of scrimmage.

WSU finally made good on its goal of forcing a few turnovers. There were three – the most in a single game this season for the Cougars – and two led directly to touchdowns.

Peyton Pelluer scooped up McMillian’s third-quarter fumble – forced by Jahad Woods – and Minshew drove the offense into the end zone minutes later with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Renard Bell.

“It’s like a chain reaction. We do something for them, they do something for us,” Williams said. “And it goes like that back and forth.”

Later in the second half, rush linebacker Willie Taylor III caught CU standout receiver Laviska Shenalt Jr. from behind and popped the ball out. Pelluer was there again to pounce on it, giving the offense possession with 10:10 left. A long, drawn-out drive finally ended when Williams pushed his way into the end zone from 3 yards out to make it 31-7.

“Especially games on the road, it’s hard to win on the road and that’s what we have to do as a defense,” Tago said. “We talk about it every practice, ‘Take away, take away,’ so we can help the offense.”