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Will Colorado find a way to 'Coug It' on the Palouse?

Because Washington State certainly won't.

Mike MacIntyre and the Buffs are still searching for that signature win.
Mike MacIntyre and the Buffs are still searching for that signature win.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Colorado Buffaloes could learn a thing or two about sealing the deal against quality opposition from the 2015 Washington State Cougars. In conference play this season, Wazzu has done their best to usher the well-worn expression "Couged It!" the way of the tired "Clemsoning" trope.

Mike Leach's Cougars have pulled off 4 come-from-behind wins this season and, aside from that opening loss to Portland State which we won't talk about, the only real hint of past late-game failures rearing their ghastly heads has been the missed field goal in the rain against Stanford, which could have happened to any #collegekicker in the country. Washington State rolls into Saturday night's late matchup against Colorado ranked 24th in the country and riding the excitement of their best season since the 10-win campaign of 2003.

As for CU, it feels like the Buffaloes are currently one year, and one large step, behind WSU. It's not hard to envision a scenario in 2016 in which Colorado finally takes that next step in the Pac-12 South and begins to place some close wins on top of their extensive collection of narrow defeats.

For now, however, the more easily imagined and immediate scenarios involve the Buffs continually coming up just short. Assuming this game remains close through the first half (within 17 points) here are the three likeliest synopses that could play out in Pullman on Saturday night (and possibly Sunday morning.)

Scenario 1: The Slow Burn

In which Washington State jumps out to a quick two score lead, similar to what Oregon did when they visited Boulder, and maintains a lead of at least 10 throughout the first half. The Buffs will likely be able to find success on the ground, as Wazzu's defense is allowing 206.7 yards per game and 5.2 yards per attempt. This should help CU burn some clock and limit the number of opportunities that the Cougars receive in the early going.

However, Washington State may not require that many opportunities. They'll likely be able to maintain a steady cushion throughout by relying on the strength of their passing game. Luke Falk, who may or may not have involuntarily spent the better part of the week in a dark closet, rallied from what had to have been a concussion to come back in and lead a last-minute 75-yard scoring drive to defeat the 18th-ranked UCLA Bruins in Pasadena last week. All indications are that Falk will be playing this weekend, meaning that Wazzu's top-ranked passing offense will bring its full strength to bear on the Colorado defense.

This season the Cougars are averaging 414 yards per game and 7.3 yards per completion as Leach's air raid attack has fully taken root on the northwestern plains. The dynamic receiving trio of Gabe Marks, Dom Williams, and River Cracraft have helped to propel Washington State's offense to the top national ranking, and they've placed themselves and their quarterback on numerous national award watch lists. If Washington State holds a lead for the majority of the game, never quite letting CU make a charge, it'll likely be due to the fact that the Cougars will have efficiently matriculated the ball downfield through the air and capitalized on each of their possessions.

Scenario 2: The Little Things

This scenario involves a relatively fast start by the Colorado offense and features either a tie game or a small Colorado deficit entering the final frame. If the Buffs are within one score with the ball in the 4th quarter, it will likely mean that quarterback Cade Apsay has enjoyed sufficient protection and found enough of a rhythm, consistently completing passes 15 yards and in, supplementing any success his tailbacks have on the ground.

It also might mean that the Buffaloes have wasted numerous opportunities, most likely kicking field goals near the red zone, failing to convert 3rd downs near midfield, or turning the ball over to a newly opportunistic Wazzu defense. The Cougars have forced 9 additional turnovers through 10 games this season and have allowed only 12 passing touchdowns as compared to 27 at this point last year.

All it will take to create some distance between the two sides is a CU turnover or a failed conversion on a flat play call or a missed execution, followed immediately by an explosive strike from Falk and his receiving corps. Wazzu is very capable of rapidly putting the Buffs down by two or more scores if Colorado trips up in even the slightest way. CU has not yet proven that they can make the small plays that matter against a quality opponent, and those miniscule failures will quickly add up against a team playing as fast and as confidently as the Cougars are. The Buffs could very well be right there as the 4th quarter begins, only to see the game slip away in the span of a couple of minutes.

Scenario 3: Hammers to the Heart

In which Colorado outplays Washington State for the majority of the game, limiting the Cougars' passing output by putting consistent pressure on Falk and finding a way to force a turnover or two. As in the Arizona, UCLA, and USC contests the Buffaloes will have earned themselves a second half lead playing bend-don't-break defense and controlling the ball on offense by steadily pounding the rock with their trio of effective tailbacks. Through three quarters Apsay will have played like a starting Pac-12 quarterback (and the message board hero that he is) distributing the ball accurately and converting numerous critical third downs keeping the Wazzu offense off of the field. Victory will be well within reach in the last 15 minutes....

Until it isn't. Something catastrophic will inevitably happen, a blocked field goal, an interception or fumble returned for a touchdown, or an explosive Wazzu touchdown which will then be compounded by more fatal errors on the following series. An offense like Washington State's doesn't stay down for long, if at all, and is clearly built to play from behind. This season the Cougars lead the country in 4th down conversion rate going 23-31, which also puts them second in the nation in total attempts. The Buffs will likely need to stall the Cougars four consecutive times to get off the field in the second half, a very tall task for Jim Leavitt's defense. If Colorado somehow has a late lead, it's a sound bet that Wazzu will even the score and pull ahead through a combination of Buffalo mistakes and Cougar talent.

Should CU somehow find a way to win this game, it won't be due to Washington State incompetence or shortcomings. Just as Wazzu has earned their 5 impressive conference victories, CU will have to find a way to shut things down and seize the win when it's within reach. By the same token, it could very well be that Washington State dominates the Buffs in every facet and never lets them get close enough to sniff an opportunity for self-sabotage.

Ultimately, I think this game plays out just like all the rest for Colorado. They'll be in it throughout, presented with their fair share of chances to impose their will and push themselves over that hump, only to fail by the narrowest of margins. Maybe next year, when the Cougars visit Boulder, the conversation will have changed and the Buffs will be the ones pulling out those tight conference victories. For now, Colorado has everything left to prove.

Prediction: Washington State 38 Colorado 27