Could the Colorado State University Rams become the state’s college football team? If the Rams continue in the direction in which they are headed, maybe so.
It’s been awhile since we’ve had a reputable team to cheer for here in Colorado. Colorado State has always had one of those second- or third-tier teams that rarely make waves in the world of national college football. The University of Colorado was, at one point, Colorado’s major source of football pride, but that was a long, long time ago. So long ago, it’s hard for many of us to remember if they were ever good. (In 1990, CU won its only National Championship, which was split with Georgia Tech).
Things have been tough for the CU Buffs for awhile now. Over the past decade, it seems, the team has had terrible leadership, which has led to recruiting troubles. Add to that the fact that they now find themselves in the Pac-12, which is getting ever more competitive, and the future looks pretty bleak right now for the CU football team.
This year, the Buffs had a forgettable season, finishing dead last in the Pac-12 South, with a record of 1-8 against conference opponents and 4-8 on the season. The Buffs did start the season off with an impressive win against CSU, but it went downhill from there. They were able to pull off wins against Central Arkansas, Charlestown Southern and the equally-as-terrible California Golden Bears. Frankly, from a bettor’s standpoint, the smart money for the past few years has picked against the Buffs. That’s not what you want to hear when you are talking about this state’s source of college football pride.
CSU, on the other hand, is on the up and up, especially after Saturday’s miracle come-from-behind victory in the New Mexico Bowl, where the Rams were able to upset the Washington State Cougars 48-45. I know we are early on in the college bowl season right now, but the ending in this New Mexico Bowl may be one of the most exciting bowls of the year.
With less than three minutes left in the game, and down 45-30, the Rams were able to force two fumbles, score two touchdowns, make a two-point conversion and kick a game-winning 41-yard field goal to stun the Cougars (and everyone watching ESPN’s college bowl coverage).
The New Mexico Bowl, while not the most prestigious bowl in the land, was a bowl worth watching. Besides CSU’s come-from-behind victory, both teams had a combined 995 yards of offense. CSU had 595 of those yards; its offense was impressive, and despite allowing 45 points, you could say the defense was impressive too as they never gave up despite a large point deficit late in the game. Cougars coach Mike Leach said so himself.
“They had a lot of reasons to quit in this game,” Washington State Coach Mike Leach said after the game, as reported by the Coloradoan. “They could have quit at any point, because they spent most of the time about 10 points, two touchdowns behind. They never did quit.”
It is this come-from-behind, never-give-up attitude that was on display Saturday that has me believing CSU Head Coach Jim McElwain has this team on track to achieving great things.
With Saturday’s bowl win, McElwain is finishing his second year at CSU, on the heels of four years as offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama under Nick Saban. When McElwain was hired, I think everyone had high hopes that he would bring new football attitude to CSU, which hasn’t had one since, well, I don’t know when. After all, McElwain was a part of two National Championship victories in Alabama, in 2009 and 2011. So far, we have to be excited about the work McElwain is doing at CSU.
In his second year, the Rams doubled their win total from the previous year, winning eight games for the first time since 2002. In two years, McElwain’s record is 11-14 overall, and 8-8 in the Mountain West Conference. On paper, these numbers may not be exactly glamorous, but they are a great step forward from the three consecutive seasons where the Rams went 3-9 prior to McElwain’s tenure.
The game where I’ve seen the biggest difference in CSU’s attitude came earlier this year when the Rams went into the lion’s den and played the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 21. The Rams eventually lost that game 31-6, but that score doesn’t really tell the story of what happened.
Despite not being able to put the ball in the end zone, the Rams defense kept it close most of the game, until the Tide put up 14 points in the fourth quarter. The Rams defense was able to hold Alabama on all six third-down attempts through the first three quarters, and they ended up two of 10 on third-down conversions for the game.
This was a game where the Rams were going to go to Alabama, play hard for the first quarter and then get blown out 55-7. Instead, they kept it somewhat close against the biggest and baddest in college football. In fact, after watching that game, I felt like McElwain had prepared his Rams team to basically punch the Alabama team in the mouth, Alabama didn't really respect the squad they were facing. Alabama won, but not without a scare.
“Offensively, we couldn't run the ball with any consistency or effectiveness," Alabama Coach Nick Saban told ESPN.com after the game. “Even though we did a pretty good job passing, it had to be four or five times that we moved the ball down the field and got just outside the red zone and we had something happen like throw an interception, miss a field goal, make a field goal, get sacked. Just too many negative plays.”
It was a loss on paper, but a win for CSU. It proved that, yes, CSU could play with the big boys.
As a disclaimer, I must say that I attended CSU (after attending the University of Northern Colorado), so in no way am I a CU fan. It’s kind of always been the Colorado way that CU is the state’s most prominent football program, and CSU has always come in somewhere behind. These days, I don’t think that’s true. CU is at rock bottom right now, and I’m not sure when we will see improvement.
CSU, under McElwain, is on the up and up. I hope they can keep it up and do great things soon because, as we all know, if McElwain is as good as we hope he is, he’ll be packing his bags for other, bigger football programs with bigger checkbooks.
For now, though, let’s enjoy the CSU ride.