Offense was the flavor of the day Saturday, and CSU had plenty of it to keeps its hopes for bowl eligibility alive.
Led by 277 rushing yards from the trio of Dalyn Dawkins, Jasen Oden Jr. and Izzy Matthews, along an efficient performance from quarterback Nick Stevens, the Rams rolled past UNLV 49-28 on Senior Night at Hughes Stadium. On the night, Stevens completed 13 of 19 passes for 209 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to All-American wide receiver Rashard Higgins.
In front of a rather sparse crowd of 15,641, CSU (5-5, 3-3 Mountain West) had a field day on offense totaling 535 yards. Rebels quarterback Blake Decker led UNLV’s first two scoring drives, but was knocked out of the game late in the second quarter after being hit by CSU linebacker Deonte Clyburn. Backup Kurt Palandech filled in admirably, throwing for 154 yards and a touchdown.
After totaling 228 rushing yards last week against Wyoming, the Rams ran all over the Rebels’ defense, finishing with a season-high 326 yards on 45 rushes.
The win moves CSU back to .500 overall, and the Rams are now one win away from being bowl-eligible for the third year in a row. Earlier Saturday, Nevada and Air Force became the third and fourth bowl-eligible teams in the Mountain West, along with Boise State and San Diego State.
On the Rams’ first drive, Stevens found tight end Steven Walker on a seam route for a 69-yard gain. Two plays later, Stevens connected with Higgins on a 9-yard TD pass, which at the time tied him with former CSU wideout Greg Primus for second on CSU’s all-time receiving yards list.
“The plan we to come in and be aggressive in the running game, but we wanted to let them know that we weren’t afraid to throw the ball early in the game, and Nick did a nice job on the first play,” CSU head coach Mike Bobo said. “Every snap in that formation, you had one-on-one coverage to the field flanker. We had switched the receivers and put Rashard to that side, and they actually doubled him. Nick went right to the tight end, and he trusted his progression and threw a great ball. It was good to start out that way, and we’ve started fast the last two weeks.”
The teams traded touchdowns for the rest of the first half, with the Rams taking a 28-21 lead into halftime after Nu’uvali Fa’apito’s first career touchdown run with 13 seconds to play in the second quarter.
On the Rams’ opening drive of the second half, Stevens and Higgins connected three times for 40 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown that gave the Rams a 35-21 lead. Higgins two second-half touchdowns extended his career touchdown catches record at CSU to 30. Despite being far behind his 2014 numbers, Higgins has continued to improve throughout the season, and now has 57 catches for 769 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I know Coach Bobo is a run type of guy, so I didn’t really know what to expect coming into this season,” Higgins said. “Now that we are late in the season, I can expect the ball to come my way, but we can also run a lot. I feel like our chemistry is what’s been hurting us the most, and I feel like we’ve been forcing the a couple of balls. Other than that, we’ll just go back to the film and try to keep on doing what’s working.”
The Rams had a chance to open up a three-touchdown lead midway through the third quarter, but CSU’s offense faltered and the Rams were forced to punt. Despite a booming 58-yard punt from Ray Guy Award semifinalist Hayden, Palandech led the Rebels on a 10-play, 91-yard drive to bring UNLV within a touchdown, 35-28.
While the Rams’ offense added two touchdowns of its own in the fourth quarter, the Rebels didn’t go down without a fight, cutting the deficit to 49-35 with 1:00 to play. UNLV recovered the ensuing onside kick, but were stopped on downs with 14 seconds to play.
For the fourth year in a row, Colorado State won on Senior Night, sending its seniors out on a high note.
“It’s kind of a mix of emotions, because my family has been here for every game — they’ve seen everything,” senior tackle Sam Carlson said. “Seeing them running out of the tunnel got me a little teary-eyed, but you can’t go out there on the first play with tears in your eyes. I”ll remember this game forever, and I’m excited to see where we’re headed from here.
CSU will close the regular season on the road against New Mexico on Saturday and Fresno State on Nov. 28.
Stay with collegian.com for more on CSU’s win over UNLV.
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter@ByKeeganPope.