There is not a handbook for rebuilding a football program.
No, “Football for Dummies.” No user’s manual. Not even Spark Notes.
Each job comes with a different challenge. But, if there is one thing nearly every program has to learn, it is how to win. That sounds kind of silly, right? You do not learn how to win, you just do.
After totaling just 13 wins between 2009 and 2012, the Colorado State football program has finally begun to learn how to win. Sure, their come-from-behind upset wins over Washington State, Colorado and Boston College over the last ten months have been impressive. But Saturday night, these Rams had to learn how to win when they were supposed to.
Up 31-3 in the third quarter and looking like a team that could hold its own with anyone, CSU found itself in an unfamiliar place – winning, on the road, against a team that will likely win the West division of the Mountain West conference.
But after giving up three touchdowns in the span of 10:51 between the third and fourth quarters, it was as though the Rams were on the verge of an epic collapse. Then it seemed like all life went out of the Colorado State sideline when Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo hit wide receiver Jerico Richardson for a 63-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
Fortunately for the Rams, they got an ever-so-nice surprise in the form of a yellow flag signaling pass interference on Nevada.
Nine plays later, seemingly headed to overtime with Nevada threatening at CSU’s 10-yard line, cornerback DeAndre Elliott came up with a monumental interception to seal a Colorado State victory.
No, it was not pretty – at all.
But, CSU’s 31-24 road victory over Nevada was exactly what the Rams needed. While head coach Jim McElwain and his staff were less than pleased with the team’s fourth-quarter performance, it was yet another reminder of this program’s progress over the last two and a half years under this regime.
Nevada was not going down without a fight, and anyone who saw Fajardo pick himself up off the turf after a brain-rattling hit by Kevin Pierre-Louis in the first quarter knew that. The Wolf Pack fought back, again and again and again. But when Colorado State needed it most, its defense provided the knockout blow Ram fans had been awaiting for the past quarter and a half.
The Rams now sit in a tie with rival Wyoming for third place in the Mountain Division, with a matchup against division leader Utah State looming on Saturday. With a win, CSU has a chance to put itself right behind Boise State in the chase for a league title, a thought that was all but a pipe dream two months ago for anyone outside the CSU program.
In their five wins, the Rams have won with good defense, with good offense and with a combination of the two most of the time. For three and a half quarters, CSU had every component of the dominant all-around performance against a quality opponent that McElwain has been looking for.
Unfortunately, they are still looking for that kind of performance. But unlike in previous seasons, the Rams can win ugly, and they showed it Saturday night.
If there was a manual for how to rebuild a football program, you can check off the chapter about learning how to win with a lead. CSU did not get an A, but they sure passed the first test.
The Pope has spoken.
Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.