PULLMAN – Here is what to watch for when Washington State hosts Colorado on Friday night.
When Colorado has the ball …
It might feel tempting to think of the Buffaloes’ offense through the lens of its stars, from quarterback Shedeur Sanders to receiver/defensive back Travis Hunter, but Colorado has leaned on others to produce its offense this year.
Among those names are receivers Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr., two wideouts who have combined for roughly 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns. Also dangerous is running back Dylan Edwards, a true freshman who has added three touchdowns through the air. Toss in Hunter and you get a solid offense.
That’s assuming Sanders has time to throw, though. Colorado has a new offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, who is set to call his third game, but he hasn’t shored up the biggest issue facing the Buffaloes’ offense: their offensive line.
This season, that unit – left tackle Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan, left guard Landon Bebee, center Van Wells, right guard Jack Wilty and right tackle Savion Washington – has yielded 48 sacks, by far the most in the country. During halftime of two games this year, Sanders has had to get pain-numbing injections to stay in the game for the second half.
As talented as Sanders is, he’s had to make a lot of plays on the run this year, and he has rarely had a clean pocket with which to work. Shurmur, who is set to call his third game this weekend after being elevated to the position a few weeks ago, will try to help Sanders on that front.
“It’s not just the Hunter kid at receiver,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “They’ve got (Weaver) and (Horn) and there’s a bunch of guys that can really make plays. So you gotta neutralize them, try at the line of scrimmage. The other thing that’s offensively is a different play-caller. So you see similar things yet low tempo, yet getting the ball out a little bit more quicker and concisely. So it’s hard to kind of navigate some of those challenges as well.”
For WSU edge rushers Brennan Jackson and RJ Stone Jr., this might make for the perfect way to go out, to play their final games at Gesa Field. Last week, Jackson moved into the top 10 for WSU’s all-time sacks , a milestone he had wanted to achieve since the beginning of the season. Stone is still looking for his first sack since Sept. 9, when he recorded two against Wisconsin.
Is this the week both change the game up front, like they spent the first few weeks of this season doing? It feels fair to project so.
When Washington State has the ball …
The Cougars are coming off something resembling an encouraging offensive outing, scoring 15 straight last week in a comeback attempt against California, but this week the Cougars will be focused on one thing above all on offense: Protect the ball.
Those responsibilities fall mostly on the shoulders of quarterback Cam Ward, who leads the country with 11 fumbles. He coughed it up three times last week, which led to 14 Golden Bears points. If the hosts want to have their way with the Buffaloes’ defense, which has given up 26 or more in four straight weeks, they will have to win the turnover battle – which starts with taking care of the ball.
“I grew up on Brett Favre,” Dickert said. “You take some of the good with the bad. When (Ward) makes the amazing play and hits Josh Kelly down the field, everyone celebrates it, but then when it goes wrong, and there’s not elite ball security … obviously very disappointed in it. Let’s be clear there – there’s not one time where Cam just says, ‘Oh,’ like he’s flippant about it. He’s not.”
Elsewhere on offense, some of the Cougars’ fate will rely on their running game and how credibly they can move the ball . Running back Nakia Watson, a senior playing his final game in Pullman, remains limited by an injury. Freshmen Leo Pulalasi and Djouvensky Schlenbaker figure to handle the majority of the carries .
For WSU, that might not be such a bad thing, especially considering that starting left tackle Esa Pole is questionable with an ankle/foot injury he sustained during last week’s game. Schlenbaker and Pulalasi combined for more than 100 yards last week. Pulalsi totaled 66 of those himself, the most by a Cougar in one game since Watson carded 75 against Arizona last season.
Those guys represent a brighter future for Washington State, particularly because Pulalasi can retain his redshirt, even if he plays both of the Cougars’ final two regular-season games. Schlenbaker also has another several years of eligibility.
They can make that matter the most, at least in the short term, by carving up a Colorado defense that’s led by safeties Shilo Sanders and Trevor Woods.
Ward might have the most say in that. He’ll just need to hang on to the ball.