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Pac-12 Championship Preview: UW vs Colorado

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Husky Hype Highway: Episode 13 - North vs South

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day
Will the Huskies win the Pac-12 and go on to the National Playoff?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

UW and Colorado both bucked preseason predictions and captured their respective divisions in the North and South of the Pac-12. Both teams needed to win their final Pac-12 game against their conference rivals and both succeeded. Now they are set for an epic top 10 matchup to capture the Pac-12 championship and go on to the College Football Playoff or Rose Bowl to play for greatness. UW crushed their opponent WSU last week by dominating all phases of the game. Browning was back to superb form. Gaskin and Coleman combined for 122 yards, which is lower than their normal productivity, but they were important yards that lead to several touchdowns. Browning passed for 292 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. The defense made 3 interception and allowed only 1 passing touchdown against one of the best passing teams in the country. That's winning. How will UW do in the Pac-12 championship? Let's skip right to the Friday championship game and break down both teams to see how this exciting matchup might play out.

The UW offense is going be going up against the top Pac-12 Colorado defense that allows only 323 yards combined average per game. The Buffaloes finished slightly ahead of UW defense which allowed 329 yards per game. Jake Browning will have his work cut out for him in this matchup. Colorado's secondary is led by senior Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie is projected to be an early round NFL draft pick. He lead the “Money Gang”, a self-proclaimed Colorado title, to the #4 pass efficiency defense in the country. This secondary is as good maybe even better than USC, which is a scary thought considering Browning's lackluster performance against the Trojans. It will be unlikely Browning will complete 72% of his passes like he did last week against WSU. Browning needs to bring his best game yet. He can not afford to throw 2 interceptions like he did versus USC several weeks ago. The Trojans’ cornerback Adoree Jackson gave Browning nightmares during that game and hopefully Browning has learned from this experience to avoid the costly mistakes that will make winning unlikely against the stingy Colorado defense. The Huskies’ running backs, Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, may find better luck than Browning against the Buffaloes but not much better. Colorado’s rush defense is also stellar and ranked near the top of the Pac-12. Gaskin has 1180 yards for the season and Coleman adds another 735 yards making this dynamic duo a formidable attack against even Colorado's tough rush defense. Colorado's biggest lost this year was to Michigan 45-28. The offensive blueprint to win that game was a balanced rush and pass attack for the Wolverines. Petersen will likely implement a similar plan that worked for Michigan utilizing a combination of Browning's accurate arm to get the ball to his favorite three targets in John Ross, Dante Pettis and Chico McClatcher along with ground and pound running. Coleman will see some snaps to power to the outside or bust it through the goal line. Gaskin’s dynamic movement and speed will also play a factor in breaking down Colorado's defensive front to gain first downs. This will be a grind it out offensive game but the Huskies are ready and have the motivation of being only a few wins away from becoming national champions.

Defensively, Washington is still short-handed with the two best players early in the season, Azeem Victor and Joe Mathis, injured and unavailable the rest of the year. Yet, they have persevered the last few games and still showed resolve in maintaining a defensive front that continues to disrupt opponents. But as much as the linebackers and defensive line are important in stopping Colorado one must look at UW's secondary and see the key to this game. Though the “Money Gang” from Colorado have some bragging rights, its Washington's “Death Row” that might get the upper hand in this matchup against Sefo Liufau. Budda Baker, Kevin King and Sidney Jones have been difficult to beat in the backfield. The Washington defense has not allowed any team to score over 30 points this season putting them alone in this category for the Pac-12. In large part this is due to a secondary, who intercepts, bats down and generally shuts down opponent's passing game. The Washington defense will need to have one of their better days this Friday to beat Colorado. A key factor will be if Washington can force some turnovers in the game. If Washington can force at least two, either fumbles or interceptions, then they are likely to win assuming they do not turn the ball over themselves. This defense is more than capable of doing this as they were able to snag 3 interceptions alone against one of the most accurate, top-rated passers in WSU’s Luke Falk.

Looking at Colorado they are strong on both sides of the ball. Starting with the offense the team leader, Sefo Liufau, has willed his way into a Pac-12 South victory defying all odds and predictions for this team. Even though Liufau went down injured early this year he is a tough as nails quarterback. Liufau reminds me of Washington's own Marques Tuiasosopo with his gumption on the field. Not only has Liufau passed for over 2,000 yards this year even though he did not start every game, he has also managed to add another 483 yards on the ground. This is the type of quarterback that can give Washington some major trouble. Brandon Dawkins almost lead a short-handed Arizona to victory early in the season against the Huskies with similar skills Liufau possesses. He has three strong receivers in Shay Fields, Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo. This trio very much resembles Washington's trio of great receivers with their ability to make big plays. Arguably John Ross, the best Washington receiver is slightly better than Shay Fields, Colorado's top receiver, but after that comparison it's an even matchup. Running the ball, Colorado has found success with Phillip Lindsay who has his first 1,000+ rushing yard season. Lindsay has only gotten better throughout the year and will pose a challenge for Washington to contain. Utah had some success containing Lindsay last week holding him to just 55 yards. However, he only touched the ball 12 times. One can expect Lindsay will get the ball a few more times against Washington but it's possible Liufau tries to run the ball himself instead.

Defensively, the “Money Gang” will look to pick the ball off if they can force Jake Browning to err. Tedric Thompson might be the guy to make those grabs with 7 interceptions already for the year. Last week he picked off Utah's Troy Williams twice and had 4 pass breakups all on 3rd or 4th down. This makes Thompson a dangerous foe against the pass for Jake Browning. Kenneth Olugbode is another player who can disrupt Washington's offense. Last week against Utah he recovered a fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. Of course the Senior leader, Chidobe Awuzie, is the player who can do it all by playing cornerback, nickel even some linebacker in his career at Colorado. Awuzie is accompanied by Akhello Witherspoon who is the #1 man in the country for breaking up passes. These two are the equals of their counterparts Jones and King of the Huskies. The question is which set of elite secondary units will come through with the big stopping plays this week to seal the victory. Will it be Awuzie/Witherspoon or King/Jones?

Special teams is also going to be of utmost importance this week. Colorado hit both their field goals in the game last week and had excellent punts delivered by Alex Kinney. Their one weakness was allowing Utah's Boobie Hobbs to return a punt for a touchdown. If Washington's Dante Pettis can exploit similar weaknesses to return a touchdown like he did against Utah a few weeks ago, the special teams may make a difference in a close game for Washington just as it did against Utah. John Ross may also get a few shots in the kick return game to make a splash in the championship, taking one more ball to the house.

This is an evenly matched battle where the game is likely to hinge on turnovers. Whoever plays mistake-free football will be the victor. Washington is favored by 7 points to win this game and they were favored by a similar amount last week when they blew out the Cougars. My gut feeling is this will not be a blow out in either direction. This will be a close game decided in the 4th quarter. Both teams have amazing defenses with multiple NFL bound players. Offensively though Washington has the edge with Jake Browning and the accuracy he brings to the game when he's playing well. If he is the typical top-level 40 touchdown Jake Browning it will be nearly impossible to stop him from winning the Pac-12 championship and taking the Huskies to their first college playoff matchup.

So we shall make one more set of Husky Hype predictions and try to guess the scenarios that will shape this game. (Note: Nearly all my predictions were correct last week and I was fairly close with the scoring giving WSU 11 more points than they were able to earn and shorting UW 3) This time around my prediction for this game will be a muted Hype Highway but nonetheless predicting victory. Here we go.

Huskies pick off Sefo Liufau and recover 1 fumble

Gaskin and Coleman rush for combined 150+ yards

Browning adds 2 more touchdowns to his resume

Dante Pettis has at least 1 40+ yard return

Colorado is held to under 140 yards total rushing.

At least one commentator will doubt the ability for Washington to make the playoff even if they win

Chris Petersen will not smile even after they win the Pac-12 championship on camera

Colorado loses a close game and still is selected to go to the Rose Bowl

Final Score prediction for the Pac-12 Championship: Huskies win 31-24.