Washington battles Colorado for Pac-12 championship
A victory by fourth-ranked Washington over No. 9 Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game might be enough to get the Huskies into the College Football Playoff.
But maybe not.
The prospect of the Big Ten getting two teams into the four-team playoff could shut out Washington (11-1), even if it defeats the surprising Buffaloes (10-2), who went from worst to first in the Pac-12 South in one season.
The teams play in the sixth Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The North champ is 5-0 in the league title game.
Washington's poor non-conference strength of schedule (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State) could come into play when the selection committee makes its decisions, but first there is the matter of finding a way to beat a veteran, balanced Colorado squad.
“I've always said that if we take care of business, everywhere I've been, those people usually do the right thing,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “Our whole focus is on Colorado. We've got a big hurdle there, and if we can get over that hurdle, yeah.”
The Buffaloes cleared big hurdles in the past two weeks, twice defeating teams ranked No. 22. They followed a 38-24 win over Washington State with a 27-22 win against Utah to clinch the South at 8-1. That marks three more conference victories than Colorado managed over its first five seasons in the Pac-12.
“I can't say enough about these seniors. I'm speechless to be honest with you,” said coach Mike MacIntyre.
“They're my heroes, that's the best way to say it. A hero goes beyond and above what you think they can do. They don't listen to anything. They keep going out there and rescuing people. That's what these young men have done, they keep lifting each other up and lifting us up.”
Washington is third nationally in scoring at 44.8 points per game.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is third in the country in passing touchdowns (40), fourth in passing efficiency (181.6 rating) and ninth in yards per completion (14.78). In last week's showdown at Washington State for the Pac-12 North title, he completed 21 of 29 passes for 292 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Sophomore running back Myles Gaskin ran for 1,180 yards in the regular season, his second season of at least 1,000 yards. Speedy senior John Ross is second nationally with 16 touchdown catches. Wide receiver Dante Pettis has 14 touchdown receptions.
“Their quarterback is extremely accurate,” MacIntyre said. “Gaskins and Ross are just so fast and explosive, Pettis catches everything and their offensive line is good. I'd call it a precise, efficient offense with big-play capabilities.”
Colorado ranks 13th nationally in total defense (323.8 yards per game) and scoring defense (18.8 points). Senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was selected the team's most valuable defensive player; he has 54 tackles, 10 pass break-ups and a nine career sacks, four this season. Safety Tedric Thompson has tied the school record for most interceptions in a season with seven.
The Buffaloes' offense isn't as explosive as Washington's, but the run-pass balance is formidable. Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau has thrown for 2,150 yards, completing 64.6 percent of his 277 passes, with just three interceptions. Running back Phillip Lindsay posted 1,136 rushing yards in the regular season, to go with 44 receptions. Liufau also has 483 rushing yards.
“They keep their offense in third-and-manageable situations and then they spread you out and then he keeps it,” Petersen said of Liufau. “He's tough and big and strong. He'll put his pads down, and you look up and he's got three yards or he's got four yards by tough running.”
Washington's hallmark on defense is being able to control the action with its front four, able to pressure the passer without blitzing and not needing to stack the box to stop the run. The Huskies' 16 interceptions are tied for 10th in the country.
The Huskies' defense is packed with five of the top 102 draft-eligible prospects for 2017, according to NFLDraftScout.com. Three of those are defensive backs — cornerbacks Sidney Jones (No. 20) and Kevin King (No. 102), and safety Budda Baker (No. 48).
Washington did lose starting linebackers Joe Mathis and Azeem Victor to injuries during the season, but redshirt freshman D.J. Beavers is making the most of his new opportunity. Beavers tallied four tackles with a forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception in last week's game against Washington State.
Washington and Colorado each lost to USC, with the Buffaloes also dropping a game at Michigan. They were leading that game in the second half before Liufau left with an injury.
The Huskies have won six consecutive meetings against Colorado, the last coming in 2014 in Boulder, 38-23.