Washington (11-1) faces the Buffaloes (10-2) at 6 p.m. Friday (FOX TV) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. UW is favored by 7.5 points.
Protect and throw deep
The strength of Colorado’s vaunted defense, which leads the Pac-12 in fewest yards allowed (323.8 per game) and passing yards allowed (187.8), is its secondary that includes three starters (cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon and strong safety Tedric Thompson) who were second-team All-Pac-12 performers. The Buffaloes’ defensive backfield allows only 5.4 yards per pass attempt — third-best in FBS. They play a fair amount of man coverage, which allows them to bring extra players on the pass rush and clog the middle to defend the run.
Washington hasn’t faced a lot of man coverage this year because opponents were fearful of being burned deep by quarterback Jake Browning, the Pac-12 offensive MVP, and speedy receivers John Ross III and Dante Pettis, who have 16 and 14 touchdowns, respectively.
Still, blitzing Browning isn’t a smart move. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 68.8 percent of his throws against the blitz. The key to rattling Browning is getting pressure with a four-man rush. In that scenario, he completes less than half of his passes. Keeping Browning upright is essential for UW. And he’ll likely test CU’s secondary on deep throws when he sees man-to-man coverage on the outside.
Stop the run
Colorado has an unconventional offensive attack, which features Sefo Liufau as a dual-threat quarterback who is dangerous as a passer and a power runner. He’s second on the team with 483 yards rushing, while averaging 12 carries per game. That’s six fewer carries per game than running back Phillip Lindsay (1,136 rushing yards and 15 TDs). Liufau is exceptionally dangerous as a runner on short-yardage situations and around the goal line. He has seven rushing TDs.
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Without linebackers Azeem Victor (broken leg), their leading tackler, and Joe Mathis (foot injury), the Huskies will rely heavily on their oversized defensive line to slow down the Buffaloes. Washington has a massive front that features three defensive tackles (Elijah Qualls, Vita Vea and Greg Gaines) who received all-conference honors. UW leads the Pac-12, allowing just 127 rushing yards per game. Colorado, which averages 201.1 rushing yards per game, was held under 100 just twice this season — both defeats.
Expect the unexpected
These teams are so evenly matched on both sides of the ball that it feels as if a big punt or kickoff return, turnover or fluky play could be the difference. The Huskies have two of the best returners in the Pac-12 in Pettis and Ross. And we know UW coach Chris Petersen has a book full of trick plays.
It goes without saying that whichever team wins the turnover battle greatly enhances its chances of prevailing. Washington and Colorado rank 1 and 2 respectively in the Pac-12 in turnover ratio. They are two of only eight FBS teams with more takeaways than touchdowns allowed.
Also the Huskies, who played last Friday, had an extra day to prepare for Colorado, which wrapped up its regular season on Saturday. The Buffaloes defeated No. 22 Utah in a physically taxing 27-22 victory while UW had a relatively easy time crushing Washington State 45-17.