BOULDER -- From the outside, the University of Colorado football team doesn't look a whole lot different this season.
The Buffs struggled to win games the past five years under coach Dan Hawkins. So far in 2011, under new coach Jon Embree, the Buffs are 1-3.
Some of the same problems -- too many penalties and mental mistakes, lack of depth, etc. -- of the past have been issues this season.
Junior safety Ray Polk insists the Buffaloes are getting better, however.
"That's the thing that this team has done a great job at is we're not setting ourselves back," he said. "We might make some mistakes and stuff like that, but the great thing about mistakes is you can learn from them and you can fix them. This team wants to be great and we've got a ton of people who really, truly care about it deep down and they're going to do what it takes to fix the mistakes ultimately."
Saturday's game against Washington State gives the Buffs another chance to show what they've fixed. But, it's also another tough challenge ahead. The Cougars are much improved from recent seasons and won't lay down for the home team.
"They've come out this year and they've got a good start, started fast," Embree said. "So obviously I know this is probably the next step for them in their process is they've got to beat a team like us at our place."
Add in the fact that this is CU's first-ever game in the Pac-12 Conference, and the Buffs ought to be juiced.
"This is a big game for both programs," Embree said. "I talked to our players about it, playing the first Pac-12 game in the school's history, and again, with our issues on the road, if we're going to have any chance of accomplishing anything, we've got to win at home."
CU is already 0-1 at home this season, and for a team that expected much more out of itself, today's game is a big one.
"It's just hard now because you're coming into your season with one win (so far)," Polk said. "It's hard to figure out what we need to do better or what you need to do different. It's always a challenge."
It's a challenge Polk said the Buffs are ready to tackle, however.
"It's great that conference play just started," he said. "That's a saving grace for us, kind of. Now we have something, a new goal and a real season to look forward to. We're still very much in it, but we've just got to keep on improving."
A look at Saturday's game ...
Washington STATE (2-1) AT COLORADO (1-3)
When/Where: Today, 1:30 p.m., at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.
The series: Colorado leads 4-2 and is 2-2 against the Cougars in Boulder. Washington State won in its last trip to Boulder, in 2003. CU won the last meeting, in Seattle in 2004.
Last week: Colorado lost at Ohio State, 47-17. Washington State had a bye.
Last year: CU was 5-7. Washington State was 2-10.
Starting strong: During its history, CU is 78-37-2 in conference openers, including 5-2 in its first game in a new league.
Hansen streaking: Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen has thrown 120 consecutive passes without an interception. That's the second-longest streak in school history (Joel Klatt, 139 throws).
Oliver perfect: True freshman Will Oliver has yet to miss a kick. He is 6-for-6 on field goals and 11-for-11 on extra points. The CU record for consecutive field goals to start a career is seven.
Lighting it up: Washington State has been impressive on offense. The Cougars rank fifth nationally in scoring (49.0 points per game), sixth in total offense (539.7 yards per game) and fourth in passing yards (380.0). They have done most of their work with backup quarterback Marshall Lobbestael at the helm. Lobbestael, who has replaced injured starter Jeff Tuel, ranks among the nation's best in pass efficiency (180.2 rating). Marquess Wilson leads the nation with 143.0 receiving yards per game. Tuel played just one series in the opener before breaking his clavicle.
Strength vs. strength: Washington State leads the Pac-12 in pass offense, while CU is the conference leader in pass defense, allowing just 183.5 yards per game through the air. The Buffs, however, are banged up at cornerback.
Busting loose?: CU has been dreadful on kickoff returns, ranking last in the Pac-12 and last nationally with 13.9 yards per return. The Cougars, however, are one of the worst teams in the conference on kickoff coverage, giving up 20.1 yards per return.
Cougar to keep an eye on: WR Marquess Wilson. Although CU has been stout against the pass, Wilson could explode against an unhealthy group of Buff corners. Wilson caught 55 passes for 1,006 yards in 2010 and already has 15 catches for 429 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Buffs to keep an eye on: Safeties Anthony Perkins and Ray Polk. Considering how Washington State loves to sling the ball, and considering how injured the Buffs are at cornerback, their two starting safeties need to step up against the pass. They'll be as critical as anyone on the field in keeping the Cougars in check.
Did you know?: Colorado leads the Pac-12 with 14 sacks, one more than Cal and Stanford (13 each). The Buffs' Josh Hartigan is tied for the individual lead, with four.
This and that: Tuel was sacked more than any other quarterbacks in the FBS last season (48 times), but the Cougars have allowed just seven sacks this season. ... CU opponents have scored on 16 of 17 trips inside the red zone (11 touchdowns). The Buffs are 9-for-10, with five touchdowns. ... Washington State has 499 wins in program history; Colorado has 672. ... CU running back Rodney Stewart needs just 36 rushing yards to pass Rashaan Salaam for second in CU history. ... The last time these two teams met -- a 20-12 CU win on Sept. 11, 2004 -- they combined for just 62 rushing yards on 77 attempts. Despite winning, CU had just 125 yards in total offense. ... During coach Paul Wulff's tenure, the Cougars are 2-25 in conference games, 7-33 overall. ... CU's all-time winningest coach, Bill McCartney, earned his first win at CU against the Cougars, 12-0 on Sept. 18, 1982. ... CU linebacker Derrick Webb turns 21 on game day.
How the Cougars can win: Exploit mismatches in the passing game. The Cougars have dynamic players at quarterback and receiver going up against CU's inexperience at cornerback. If Washington State's offensive line can protect Lobbestael and give him time to work, the Cougars could pick CU's defense apart.
How the Buffs can win: Control the clock with the run game. Isn't that the key every week with CU? The Buffs' disappointing run game (3.1 yards per carry; 86.5 yards per game) has to be better in order to keep the chains moving. Most importantly, the Buffs have to deliver in short-yardage situations.