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‘Kicked our butts.’ Colorado’s Deion Sanders left stunned by 56-14 loss at Washington State

Colorado Buffaloes head coach Deion Sanders watches as his team struggles against the Washington State Cougars during the second half of a college football game on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, at Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 56-14.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Deion Sanders struggled to exude his usual energy as he fielded questions from media members Friday night, pausing at one point during a postgame press conference to explain why he was more subdued than normal.

“I’m sorry guys,” Sanders said, “my head is throbbing.”

Colorado’s first-year coach said he caught a bug at some point in the leadup to Friday night’s game at Washington State and way things played out on the field only amplified headaches for Sanders and Colorado as the Cougars handed the Buffaloes their most lopsided loss of the season. The final tally, 56-14, snapped WSU’s six-game losing streak and extended a five-game slide for visiting Colorado.

In some ways, it probably left both sides scratching their heads – albeit for very different reasons.

On the heels of six losses in their last six games, the Cougars entered as just 4½-point favorites. Since the bye week, they’d conceded 32.8 points per game and many thought WSU would have to lean heavily on its offense to overpower Colorado and talented quarterback Shedeur Sanders, whose 3,144 yards entering Friday’s game ranked fifth nationally.

But nobody expected the script to play out like this: WSU sprinting out to a 21-7 first-quarter lead courtesy of touchdowns from the offense, defense and special teams, stretching the advantage to 42-7 at halftime and adding two more touchdowns in the third quarter for good measure to gain a 49-point lead.

“Those guys can play the game and they’re well-coached,” said Sanders, the NFL Hall of Fame cornerback and former Jackson State coach who created one of college football’s top storylines this offseason when he accepted the job at Colorado. “They came out and executed. Kicked our butts. I would’ve never fathomed that this would’ve been the conclusion of the score if you would’ve asked me a week or two weeks ago. There’s no way.”

Many of the issues Colorado faced during a four-game losing streak were magnified for about three hours under the floodlights on a chilly Friday in Pullman.

The Buffaloes have struggled to protect Shedeur Sanders, who threw for 510 yards against TCU in his Colorado debut 10 weeks ago. Unable to withstand the pressure from WSU’s pass-rushers – particularly seniors Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson – Colorado’s QB was sacked four times within the Buffaloes’ first 10 offensive plays.

The youngest son of CU’s head coach sustained two different injuries in the game, hurting his arm in the first quarter when he was dropped to the turf by Stone Jr., who managed to pop the ball out of the QB’s hands on the play, giving Jackson a chance to pick it up and run 40 yards for a touchdown.

“He had numbness in his hand,” Deion Sanders said. “He got hit in his forearm and he couldn’t really feel the ball, he couldn’t really grip the ball.”

Later in the game Sanders got rolled up on, injuring his ankle in the process. For the first time this season, Colorado’s starting QB didn’t finish a game, giving way to backups Ryan Staub and Gavin Kuld in the second half.

The injuries played a role, but Sanders was headed toward season-low passing numbers long before he left the game. The Colorado QB, who’d averaged 305.8 yards his first 10 games – and no fewer than 211 in any one game – finished Friday’s contest with just 86 yards, accumulating 45 of those on a first-quarter touchdown pass to Travis Hunter.

“Couldn’t grip the ball and had his ankle, so took him out of the game and the rest is history,” Deion Sanders said.

Colorado garnered buzz from every corner of the college football world when the Buffaloes opened the season with three consecutive wins over TCU, Nebraska and Colorado State. Ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25, Sanders’ team got its first true reality check when it lost 42-6 at Oregon.

The Buffaloes lost five of their next six games, but by relatively small margins: a 12-point loss to UCLA, seven-point losses to both USC and Oregon State and three-point losses to Stanford and Arizona.

Which made Friday’s result – a blowout loss to a team that had been battling its own adversity for two months – all the more befuddling.

“How surprising was this performance from your team?” a reporter asked.

“Very,” Sanders said. “Very.”

For the first time this season, the Buffaloes didn’t make players available to the media for postgame comments. Instead, their head coach took about eight minutes worth of questions, doing his best to explain what happened Friday night while implying he still hadn’t totally processed it.

“Great win by our opponents, they played a heckuva game, coached a heckuva game,” Sanders said. “They came to play, candidly, from the start to the finish. Obviously it don’t look like we did.”