Rivalry week is upon the Colorado State football team. For the second time this year, CSU will face an in-state rival when the Air Force Falcons roll into Hughes Stadium Saturday. After suffering a 41-10 blowout loss to No. 21 Boise State at home last weekend, CSU will look to get back on track and avoid losing its third game in a row. The Falcons (3-3) bring one of the nation’s top rushing attacks against a CSU defense that has struggled mightily against the run over the last three weeks. The Rams (2-4) face a critical juncture of their season, with their shot at bowl eligibility dwindling with each loss. A win would bring a level of confidence back to Fort Collins, and would serve as a turning point for the Rams heading into their one and only bye week.
Here are three keys to a CSU victory when the Rams and Falcons face off Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Stay disciplined on defense
The Falcons triple-option offense has given defenses fits for years, and CSU has been no exception. Air Force’s rushing offense ranks in the top-five nationally, averaging 320.8 yards per game. In the early part of the season, CSU’s rush defense was among the best in the country, but the Rams have been gashed by Texas-San Antonio, Utah State and Boise State in consecutive weeks. The Rams rank 97th out of 124 FBS teams, and they will face a steep challenge trying to slow down quarterback Karson Roberts, fullback DJ Johnson and a host of running backs. Playing against the triple-option requires eye discipline, something the Rams have struggled with against zone-read offenses.
Find your playmakers
Surprisingly, CSU’s passing offense ranks third in the Mountain West, despite the constant shuffling of quarterbacks and a drastic drop in star receiver Rashard Higgins’ stats from a year ago. After facing one of the best rush defenses in the country against Boise State last week, the Rams will face an elite pass defense when they take on the Falcons. Led by ball-hawking safeties Weston Steelhammer and Brodie Hicks, the Falcons have been able to limit their opponents to just 167 passing yards per game through the first half of the season. If CSU wants to have success and open up its running game, the Rams will have to find Higgins, Joe Hansley, and tight ends Kivon Cartwright and Steven Walker. The Rams have really struggled to get the ball to their playmakers so far this year, but they’ll need to take advantage of their opportunities against an Air Force team that doesn’t give its opponents many opportunities to score.
Eliminate the mistakes
More than anything else this year, mistakes, turnovers and penalties have cost the Rams in their four losses. This has been a key for CSU in every game this year, but it will be crucial against the Falcons. Air Force hasn’t been particularly great in avoiding turnovers, ranking in the bottom half of the country in turnover margin. But they rarely ever incur costly penalties, averaging just over four per game. CSU has been on the opposite end of the spectrum, becoming one of the most penalized teams in the country, while ranking at the bottom of the FBS in turnover margin. Against the Falcons’ ball-control scheme, CSU will only get to many chances, and it can’t squander them with unforced errors and penalties.
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.