New Mexico Bowl preview: Washington State's defense key against Colorado State
It has been 10 years since the Cougars have gone bowling, but in just his second year as head coach of Washington State, Mike Leach has the Cougars back in the postseason as they fly their aerial attack down to Albuquerque for the New Mexico Bowl. As one would expect from a Leach-coached team, the Cougars put the ball in the air more than anyone in the entire country and get to face off against one of the nation’s worst pass defenses in Colorado State, so expect a lot of points to be scored in the Land of Enchantment.
Who: Washington State (6-6, 4-5 Pac-12) vs. Colorado State (7-6, 5-3 Mountain West)
What: Gildan New Mexico Bowl
When: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 11 a.m. PT, noon MT
Where: Albuquerque, N.M.
Where to watch: ESPN with Mark Jones (play-by-play), Brock Huard (analyst) and Jessica Mendoza (sideline)
Rushing offense: Washington State 58.67 ypg (125th in NCAA), Colorado State 203.54 ypg (31st in NCAA)
Passing offense: Washington State 364.5 ypg (4th in NCAA), Colorado State 258.5 ypg (39th in NCAA)
Scoring offense: Washington State 29.8 ppg (60th in NCAA), Colorado State 35.3 ppg (28th in NCAA)
Rushing defense: Washington State 185.25 ypg (85th in NCAA), Colorado State 151.9 ypg (49th in NCAA)
Passing defense: Washington State 261.3 ypg (108th in NCAA), Colorado State 265.4 ypg (111th in NCAA)
Scoring defense: Washington State 31.3 ppg (92nd in NCAA), Colorado State 28.6 ppg (75th in NCAA)
How they got there
It was clear from the get-go that this was going to be a different Cougar team in 2013 when Washington State went down to Auburn and took the Tigers down to the wire in a 31-24 loss. Mike Leach’s team backed up that statement with a 10-7 upset win at USC the following week. The Cougars won their other two non-conference games against Southern Utah and Idaho comfortably and headed into the bulk of their Pac-12 schedule confident at 3-1.
The beginning of their Pac-12 slate did not go well though, as Washington State suffered blowout losses to Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State. The Cougars bounced back with a lopsided win of their own over Cal to finish the month of October with a 4-5 record.
November faired much better for the Cougars, as they pulled out a gutty 24-17 win at Arizona and beat Utah in Pullman to secure their bowl eligibility. Washington State finished the regular season with a loss in the Apple Cup at Washington to finish 6-6.
It was a tough non-conference slate for the Rams to open up the season as they dropped close contests to Colorado and Tulsa in their first two games of 2013 to start 0-2. However, they recovered with an easy win over Cal Poly, followed by a solid performance in a loss at Alabama and a win over UTEP to head into Mountain West play at 2-3.
The start of the conference schedule was up-and-down for Colorado State as they dropped their opener to San Jose State, but won on the road at Wyoming and Hawai’I before another loss at home against Boise State that put them at 4-5.
The Rams picked up steam down the backstretch as they won three out of four, with each win coming by more than 20 points in games against Nevada, New Mexico and Air Force to finish at 7-6.
One of the most interesting coaches to ever make a name for himself in college football, Leach has transformed the Cougars into a mold he perfected at Texas Tech that includes a heavy reliance on the passing game, rarely running the ball and playing with a chip on its shoulder. Leach isn’t afraid to roll the dice when it comes to dialing up big plays on either side of the ball, so Colorado State will need to be prepared for deep passing attacks and heavy blitzes.
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has slowly improved the Rams under his tenure. He’s successfully awakened the program’s offense, especially through his use of numerous running backs. McElwain’s ability to rejuvenate the program, particularly on offense has made him a rising name for more high profile jobs out West.
Safety Deone Bucannon – One of the biggest hitters in the country and an All-American, Bucannon is a major intimidator in the defensive backfield and can also be aggressive in pass defense as he grabbed five interceptions this season.
Quarterback Connor Halliday – Halliday is one of the wildest gunslingers in the history of the Pac-12. Fearless of throwing the ball in almost any situation, he’s been able to put up a ton of yards and touchdowns because of it, but it’s also regularly come back to bite the Cougars as he tossed 21 interceptions this season.
Wide receiver Gabe Marks – The Cougars like to spread the ball out to a bunch of receivers, but none gets the ball more than Marks, who had 67 receptions in 2013 and was their most consistent receiver all season.
Linebacker Shaquil Barrett – The Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year is one of the best players in the country at getting into the backfield as he is near the top of the nation in sacks and tackles-for-loss.
Running back Kapri Bibbs – Bibbs is a touchdown machine as he finished with 28 this season and is a deadly runner who has good size at 205 pounds, but also has the speed to run away from defenders.
-Washington State passes the ball more than any other team in the entire country, throwing the ball 698 times during the regular season.
-Bibbs led all FBS running backs with 28 touchdowns on the ground, six more than Tre Mason who ran for the second-most.
-Washington State was the worst rushing team in the entire nation, averaging less than 60 yards on the ground per game.
Keys to the game
For Washington State: Slowing Bibbs and Colorado State’s rushing attack with their front seven.
The Cougars will be able to move the ball against Colorado State’s weak pass defense, so their challenge will be slowing Colorado State’s strong offense, particularly in the run game. The Cougars have regularly relied on moving their defensive backs up to help in the run game, and better teams have made a living taking advantage of that and beating them deep. If they can defend Colorado State’s strong rushers without committing defensive backs, they give themselves a good chance at limiting the Ram’s scoring.
For Colorado State: Getting pressure on Connor Halliday and forcing him into interceptions
When not pressured, Halliday can pick apart even good pass defenses with his army of receivers, so the Rams will need to get pressure on him or they will have a very difficult time keeping the Cougars out of the end zone. Halliday is steady in the pocket, but very prone to interceptions when under pressure or forced out of the pocket. If Barrett and the front seven can get after him, they will likely have a shot at grabbing an interception.