PULLMAN – The Colorado Buffaloes suffered narrow defeats in their first two games after blowing halftime leads, and coach Jon Embree was quick to identify part of the problem.
“We have to continue to learn how to finish,” he said.
The coach’s message confused the young Buffaloes. Apparently convinced that Embree thought they were peaking too early in games, the Buffs promptly went out and fell behind 48-0 in the first half of a 69-14 loss at Fresno State last week.
The Washington State Cougars (2-1) find themselves in the rare position of being 20-point favorites when Colorado (0-3) visits Martin Stadium today for homecoming game (1 p.m., FX). It’s the Pacific-12 Conference opener for both teams.
Embree, an ex-Colorado star who was a popular choice to replace Dan Hawkins as coach after the 2010 season, is under fire.
Earlier this week, former Colorado and NFL player Matt McChesney labeled the Buffaloes “a disgrace” on his Denver radio show.
CBSSports.com ranks Colorado 120th out of 124 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (WSU is 86th). Simply put, the Buffaloes appear to be lacking at almost every position.
The Cougars, of course, were in a similar position not so long ago. Now they’re trying to win their third game in a row and sell out a consecutive home games for the first time since 2006.
A victory would push the Cougars halfway to their goal of qualifying for a bowl game for the first time since 2003. Of course, the Cougars were 3-1 last year after opening Pac-12 play with a 31-27 win at Colorado, then lost seven of their remaining eight games.
Washington State faces a monumental challenge Sept. 29 against third-ranked Oregon in Seattle (7:30 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2), so every victory is essential.
WSU coach Mike Leach and his players constantly talk about the need to get physically and mentally “tougher.” Unfortunately for the Cougars, they have limitations due to youth, inexperience and the sheer lack of talent and/or depth at some positions.
The Cougars do have talent and depth at quarterback and wide receiver. Sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday is expected to make his third college start with senior Jeff Tuel still nursing a knee injury, and starting slot receiver Rickey Galvin is apparently out indefinitely with an arm injury suffered last week at UNLV. The Cougars do not disclose injury information.
WSU remains without former starting guard-tackle Dan Speltz, who has been absent for two weeks due to “personal issues,” Leach said. Redshirt freshman Gunnar Eklund made his first start last week – he played left tackle, with former North Mason High School standout John Fullington shifting to left guard – and Eklund looked solid.
“He played real, real well,” Leach said.
Halliday received better protection than Tuel did in the first two games. Center Elliott Bosch said it was the offensive line’s “best game,” but he echoed Eklund and Leach when he said the Cougars need to finish games stronger. Eastern Washington and UNLV scored late to make the past two games close.
“We just have to learn how to finish,” Eklund said, “and how to win and how to keep the foot on someone’s throat.”
COLORADO (0-3, 0-0 PACIFIC-12 CONFERENCE) AT WASHINGTON STATE (2-1, 0-0 PAC-12)
1 p.m., Martin Stadium, Pullman
TV: FX. Radio: 710-AM, 104.3-FM.
The series: Colorado leads, 4-3. The Cougars won, 31-27, last year in Boulder, Colo.
What to watch: The painfully young Buffaloes, who may start three true freshmen in the secondary, rank among the worst teams in the nation in a variety of offensive and defensive statistics. Colorado quarterback Jordan Webb, a junior transfer from Kansas, has played in 13 consecutive losses between the two schools. WSU sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday evened his career record as a starter at 1-1 after winning last week at UNLV. Halliday loves to go deep, but he has been intercepted three times in five quarters this season (with four touchdown passes). WSU’s secondary has been shaky, so strong play by the Cougars’ speedy but inexperienced linebackers could be essential against a team that likes to run the ball and throw play-action passes.
The pick: Washington State 38, Colorado 20.
12Connor Halliday (QB)6-4/189Sophomore
Averaged 14.5 yards per completion last week against UNLV’s dreadful secondary.
86Marquess Wilson (WR)6-4/185Junior
One of WSU’s all-time greats had two TD catches, two drops last week.
89Travis Long (OLB-DE)6-4/245Senior
Senior leads Pac-12 with four quarterback sacks.
20Deone Bucannon (SS)6-1/192Junior
Leads team with 22 tackles, one interception (tied).
4Jordan Webb (QB)6-1/205Junior
Kansas transfer, who may share playing time for the second straight week, has been sacked 10 times.
46Christian Powell (RB)6-0/235Freshman
True freshman has done little except for 147 rushing yards, 3 TDs versus Sacramento State.
31Jon Major (OLB)6-2/235Senior
One of eight seniors on team, leads Buffs with 28 tackles.
96Chidera Uzo-Diribe (DE)6-3/250Junior
Has 15 tackles, team-high three sacks.Howie Stalwick, contributing writer