In a close contest against a team undefeated in Pac-12 Conference play, the No. 12 Colorado Buffaloes defeated No. 20 Washington State at home, 38-24. Wazzu stayed close for the majority of the game, but the Buffs pulled away big in the fourth quarter.
The Buffs (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) sat in the 10th spot in the college football rankings before the game on Saturday. The team will likely slide up at least a few spots after the win. With No. 11 Utah’s last-second loss to Oregon earlier in the day, the Buffaloes could clinch sole possession of the Pac-12 South title if the USC Trojans fall to UCLA.
“Our guys are battle-tested and hardened,” said Mike MacIntyre, head coach. “The younger guys are stepping in and catching on to what’s going on … we do not blink — you just keep looking and keep fighting and keep swinging.”
The matchup between CU’s elite secondary and Wazzu’s stud quarterback Luke Falk was a major talking point heading into the showdown, and it turned out to be the key battle during the game.
Falk was impressive. He finished the night with three touchdown passes and 325 yards through the air while completing 26 of 53 passes. But for all the talk regarding Falk’s NFL potential, Colorado’s secondary won the duel against the junior quarterback. Senior defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon led the team with three passes defended. The rest of the defense added an additional six.
But it was the Buffaloes’ senior quarterback Sefo Liufau who stole the show from Falk. Liufau went 27-of-41 with 345 yards through the air. Although he failed to throw a touchdown pass, Liufau made up for it on the ground, finding the end zone three times and rushing for 113 yards on 23 carries.
“[Liufau] played excellent,” MacIntyre said. “He’s such a battler, such a warrior … he played like I figured Sefo would.”
The Buffaloes and Cougars played a pretty even first half. Junior tailback Phillip Lindsay opened the scoring with a 9-yard touchdown run about four and a half minutes into the game. He finished the game with 147 yards on 31 carries. Lindsay also caught five passes for 50 yards in the game.
His performance put him over the 1,000-yard mark on the year.
“Our offensive line got rumbling and got on top of the defensive linemen, and as a running back you’ve got to find the holes and make people miss,” Lindsay said after the game.
Sophomore wideout Jay MacIntyre had himself a career day, too. He recorded a career-high seven receptions for 90 yards during the game, which included a few big grabs downfield that kept multiple Colorado drives alive.
Junior Devin Ross led the team with 8 receptions and 121 yards.
After Lindsay scored, the Cougars answered within a few minutes later when Falk found Robert Lewis for a 15-yard strike to tie the game. Wazzu went up 14-7 with two and a half minutes left in the first quarter off a 46-yard bomb from Falk to tailback Jamal Morrow, who beat Buffaloes’ senior linebacker Kenneth Olugbode on a deep route.
The true heroes of the game were the Buffs’ defensive backs. On Washington State’s first touchdown, junior defensive back Afolabi Laguda was ejected following a questionable targeting call for hitting Lewis in the end zone.
The Buffaloes would later lose fellow junior Ryan Moeller, who, according to MacIntyre, sustained a minor concussion in the game.
But sophomore defensive back Nick Fisher answered the call. After being thrown into the game, Fisher had himself one heck of a performance. He finished second on the team with six tackles.
“A lot of guys played very well tonight, especially Nick Fisher,” Liufau said. “To have two safeties go down and him hav[ing] to step up and play the way he did was great.”
After freshman placekicker Davis Price shanked a 38-yard field goal with time winding down in the first half, the Buffaloes went into halftime trailing, 17-14.
“Coach Mac told us that they were right where we wanted them,” Awuzie said. ‘We knew it was going to be a close game … coach Mac really stressed that to us, to keep fighting, keep battling, that we were going to need to play for four quarters, and I think we did that.”
The Buffaloes deferred the opening coin toss and received to begin the second half. Liufau ran it into the end zone for the second time about four minutes into the third quarter to put the Buffs up 21-17.
But Washington State fought back. The Cougars capped a seven-play, 67-yard drive with a touchdown to retake the lead, 24-21 with three minutes left in the third quarter. The touchdown would be the final time Wazzu scored during the game.
From there, the Buffaloes took command, going up 28-24 just before the start of the fourth quarter thanks to Liufau’s third rushing touchdown of the night.
Junior placekicker Chris Graham replaced Price later in the game, and nailed a 46-yard field goal, which gave the Buffaloes a 7-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Washington State came into Saturday night’s game on back-to-back 600-yard offensive performances. But it was the Buffaloes who hit that mark, gaining 603 yards to WSU’s 462 yards of total offense. The Buffs’ 100 plays on offense were the most against a Cougars team since Oregon ran 102 against Wazzu in 2004.
Third down offense was crucial for the Buffaloes, who converted 13 of 21 attempts, while allowing the Cougars to move the chains on 4 of 15 third downs.
“That was the difference in the game if you look at the stats,” MacIntyre said. “We had a better third down percentage and I think that made a huge difference.”
Fisher was in on multiple critical plays during the game. The most important of those plays came on fourth down in the final quarter.
“Fisher has so much potential that he doesn’t even know about,” said Chidobe Awuzie, senior defensive back. “When he’s out there making those plays, it doesn’t surprise me, and it shouldn’t surprise him … he’s a great player [and a] hell of an athlete.”
Falk and the Cougars’ offense were driving down the field. They made it to the Buffaloes’ 18-yard line when a pass intended for WSU’s John Thompson fell incomplete on third down. Wazzu opted to go for it on fourth. Falk tossed the ball to Kyle Sweet on fourth and 4, who gained about 3 yards but was met swiftly by Fisher, who made the tackle, denying a WSU first down.
“Coach always talks about starring in your role,” Fisher said. “Tonight, my team needed me to step up, and I tried to do that for them.”
“That fourth down stand at the beginning of the fourth quarter, to me, was really the turning point of the game,” MacIntyre said.
With the game clock ticking and with just a few minutes left in the contest, Colorado’s nation-leading streak of 23 straight games with forcing a turnover seemed to be coming to an end.
But with just over four minutes left, senior linebacker Jimmie Gilbert sacked Falk and forced a fumble, which junior linebacker Addison Gillam recovered to extend the streak. After Lindsay found the end zone again to make the score 38-24, senior defensive back Tedric Thompson picked off Falk on WSU’s final possession to further cushion that streak.
The Buffs will face the Utah Utes at home for their final game of the season on Saturday, Nov. 26. Kickoff is at 5:30 p.m. MST.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo