The questions surrounding the Rams’ defense and how they would stack up against the nation’s best team and their potent offense were suspended by the end of the first quarter last Saturday in the game against Alabama.
In its strongest showing of the season, the CSU defense held No. 1 Alabama to just 66 yards rushing last week, allowing only 11 yards on seven attempts in the first quarter. The Rams also stalled quarterback A.J. McCarron, who finished with 258 yards on 20 of 26 completed passes and one interception in a 31-6 Alabama victory. McCarron had 356 yards a week earlier and his team posted 234 yards rushing in a win vs. No. 6 Texas A&M.
A lot of the success the defense had in Alabama can be attributed to the defensive line. Last year, the defense gave up an average of 202.4 rushing yards per game to opponents. Through four games this year, the Rams have cut that average to 148.3 yards per game.
“When you look at how good the linebackers are they’re able to make plays because the guys up front are doing their job, controlling their gaps and keeping those guys off of them,” Head Coach Jim McElwain said. “That to me says if you’re having great linebacker play, somebody’s doing something right up front and those are the things that don’t show up in the box score, but those linebackers sure appreciate it.”
‘Doing your job’ is something McElwain preaches to the team during every practice and every game. He doesn’t want his players trying to do more than is asked of them and he has seen his team grasp that concept this year. For McElwain, that’s a telling growth he hadn’t quite seen in his players last season and even at the start of this season.
“It tells me that our guys are doing their job,” he said. “They are doing it the way they’ve been taught.”
The impressive showing by the defense hasn’t gone unnoticed by the offense, either.
“We kind of look at (the defense) and say ‘Hey, these guys just shut down one of the best offenses in the country, best running games in the country,’” Quarterback Garrett Grayson said. “We look at that and say, ‘Hey if you just do your job, no one can stop us and we can keep this thing rolling in the right direction.’”
The question for the Rams defense now is how they will perform from here on out.
McElwain is more concerned with how his team will show up this week rather than celebrating the fact that they were able to go toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the nation.
“The answer to that in my mind is how we play against UTEP,” McElwain said. “If they played hard against the number one team in the country, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who you play against and that’s the thing that I can’t stress enough.”
For UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers, the CSU defense will present a challenge on Saturday for a team that relies heavily on their ground game. UTEP will come into Fort Collins averaging 224 rush yards per game. For Showers, it’s important for his team to start fast against the Rams.
“I think that’s the game plan every week but especially against this defense just because they’re going to catch on to what we’re doing, they’re fast enough and good enough to stop it,” Showers said. “I think if we execute out there, we should be fine.”
CSU Football Beat Reporter Katie O’Keefe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.