To beat Colorado, the Cougars say they need to revert back to the tried and proven script: taking care of the ball on offense and forcing turnovers on defense.
Washington State’s defense forced 15 turnovers in the Cougars’ 6-0 start.
Last week’s game against Cal marked the first time this season that WSU’s defense has come off the field empty handed in the turnover department.
That game also gave 15th-ranked WSU (6-1 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) its first loss of the season.
Coincidence? Unlikely, says WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
“I was very, very disappointed in our inability to get a takeaway,” Grinch told reporters this week. “No matter what our guys do (on offense) from a turnover standpoint, it doesn’t impede our ability to get a takeaway. That stuff wins football games. It’s a major component of who we are.”
So the assignment this Saturday against Colorado is simple, and, really, unchanged from what it’s been throughout the first half of the season: Get takeaways on defense.
In Grinch’s three seasons as defensive coordinator, the Cougars are 18-3 when they’ve forced multiple turnovers in games.
Colorado poses an intriguing challenge. The Buffs are one of the Pac-12’s better teams in terms of ball security. They’ve turned over the ball to opposing defenses only eight times this season – better than all but three Pac-12 teams Six of those turnovers have come off interceptions thrown by quarterback Steven Montez, though Montez hasn’t thrown a pick in three games, and three of his six interceptions this year came against UW’s Pac-12 leading defense.
Montez, a sophomore, is in his first season as Colorado’s starter. But, as Grinch notes, Montez “played quite a bit over the years in a reserve role. He’s a confident quarterback over there.”
Montez is averaging 241.6 passing yards per game, has completed 63.6 percent of his passes this year and has thrown 12 touchdown passes. While he’s not as much of a dual-threat as former Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufao, Montez is athletic enough that he can scramble for yardage when needed, and routinely averages about 31.5 rushing yards per game.
“Liufao at times seemed almost excited to be a fullback and get those tough yards. They ask Montez to do the same and he seems more than willing to do so,” Grinch said. “He extends plays, he’s got some pop in his arm in driving the ball downfield, and he has a very experienced, fast receiving corps that do a good job.”
Montez has built a steady rapport with senior receiver Bryce Bobo, who has tallied 15 receptions for three touchdowns and 179 yards in Colorado’s last two games.
But the Buffs are by no means one-dimensional. Offensively, Colorado tailback Phillip Lindsay poses the biggest threat to WSU. Lindsay (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) gashed WSU’s defense for 144 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Colorado’s win last season, and is coming off a 185-yard effort against Oregon State, and a season-high 281 yards in the Buffs’ defeat to Arizona.
“He’s been a good back for a long time. He’s one of the best backs in the country,” WSU inside linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s incredibly tough, he runs hard, has fast feet and does not take any tackles for loss. He’s always going forward and doesn’t mind contact.”
On defense, Colorado has lost defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and eight starters from the team that terrorized the Cougs in Boulder a year ago, so the Buffs don’t look quite as menacing.
But, “they’re pretty good,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “They fly around and they’re aggressive.”
Leach challenged his team this week to turn up the intensity, block out all distractions and come together to rebound from last Friday’s debacle in Berkeley.
This homecoming night game against Colorado is their first chance to demonstrate that resilience.
“We’re a pretty motivated team, and we have been,” Leach said “We have to go out there and worry about ourselves and what we have to do – not listen to all the garbage in the media – and focus on us. It’s too tempting for guys to have some success and try to enjoy it.
“Well, you don’t get success by sitting there and enjoying stuff. You get success from grinding away, slugging hard. That’s what you’ve got to do in the process.”