TUCSON, Ariz. — When the final seconds ticked off of the clock in the south end zone at Arizona Stadium Tuesday night, a familiar look of dismay crept across the faces of Colorado State’s players and coaches. A game with so much promise had come and gone, leaving the Rams disappointed and downtrodden after yet another postseason letdown.
It seemed to be a microcosm of the Rams’ first season under Mike Bobo, which despite maybe unrealistic expectations, ended with a heartbreaking 28-23 loss to in-conference opponent Nevada in the inaugural NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. On a late, final-minute drive, Nick Stevens drove the Rams down to the Nevada 12-yard line, but wide receiver Jordon Vaden couldn’t get out of bounds to stop the clock and time ran out on CSU’s comeback bid.
“It hurts, and it’s something that we’re going to learn from,” CSU head coach Mike Bobo said. “It’s something that we’ll move on from and become better and stronger from it.”
Offensive MVP of the game James Butler rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, and Nevada’s Ian Seau earned defensive MVP honors after notching a sack, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Familiar pitfalls found the Rams though, who won the yardage battle decidedly, but couldn’t make the key plays — on offense or defense — that they needed to.
It was yet another inauspicious start for CSU quarterback Nick Stevens, whose first pass bounced off of center Jake Bennett’s back, and his second pass was batted down by Nevada defensive Ian Seau. After consecutive first downs, Stevens was sacked on consecutive plays, with the latter ending in a fumble recovered by Nevada’s Rykeem Yates at the CSU 41-yard line. Stevens, harassed by the Wolf Pack’s aggressive front four, struggled to find his rhythm all night, completing just 22 of 42 passes for 310 yards, finishing without a single passing touchdown.
Following the turnover, the Rams’ defense bent but didn’t break, allowing the Wolf Pack to drive all the way to the 2-yard line before forcing a 19-yard Brent Zuzo field goal, which gave the Wolf Pack the first-ever points in the inaugural bowl and a 3-0 lead over CSU.
After forcing a CSU punt, Nevada moved the ball deep in CSU territory again, but the Wolf Pack were forced to settle for another Zuzo field goal, this time from 37 yards to take a 6-0 lead with 14:13 to play in the half. It was Zuzo’s 16th make in a row from inside 50 yards this season.
CSU’s sputtering offense finally found some traction on the next drive, using its run game to drive all the way to the Nevada 4-yard line. Nevada’s defense stood tall, stopping freshman running back Izzy Matthews in his tracks on fourth-and-1. An opportunity, squandered.
A Wolf Pack three-and-out gave the Rams great field possession at the Wolf Pack 39, and the Rams took advantage. On the second play of the drive, Stevens found star wideout Rashard Higgins on a slant route, which he proceeded to take 38 yards, leaving a handful of Nevada defenders grasping at nothing but the dry Tucson air. It would set up a touchdown.
The Rams’ momentum wouldn’t last long, though. Three plays later, Nevada running back James Butler, one part of the Wolf Pack’s two-headed rushing monster, blew through the line and past the CSU defense for a 77-yard touchdown run to give Nevada a 13-7 lead with 6:38 to play in the half.
Another CSU drive followed with lots of promise, as CSU methodically moved its way down to the Nevada 3-yard line, only to come up with yet another Wyatt Bryan field goal to cut the deficit to 13-10 with 1:46 to go.
The tables turned quickly again, with Nevada kick returner Elijah Mitchell taking the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Zuzo, however, missed just his second extra point attempt of the season, leaving Nevada with a 19-10 lead with 1:25 left on the clock.
CSU quickly moved down the field, crossing into Nevada territory in just four plays. The Rams yet again drove into the red zone, only to come away with a 29-yard field goal from Bryan, leaving them trailing 19-13 at the break.
On the opening drive of the half, Nevada drove right down the field again, but like they had before, CSU’s defense bowed its neck, holding the Wolf Pack to another field goal from Zuzo. Led by Matthews and senior running back Jasen Oden Jr., who had yet to carry the ball, CSU bulled its way down the field, with Oden Jr. capping off a 12-play, 53-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown off right tackle to cut the Nevada lead to 22-20.
A stop on fourth-and-1 on the next drive gave CSU the ball at its own 31, with a chance to take the lead for the first time all night. But a a holding call on third-and-1 near midfield set the Rams back, and CSU was forced to punt.
The Wolf Pack offense couldn’t get going though, and the Rams took over at their own 37 with with 7:05 to play. Behind Matthews and Oden Jr. again, CSU drove to the Nevada 21. CSU had a chance at a touchdown on third-and-15, but Stevens narrowly overthrew Higgins in the end zone, and Bryan’s third field goal of the night gave CSU its first lead, 23-22, with 3:40 to play.
That was plenty of time for Nevada though, as the Wolf Pack moved right down the field, and James Butler’s second touchdown of the night, this one from four yards out, gave the Wolf Pack a 28-23 lead with 1:06 to go.
“Toward the end, we weren’t tackling as well as we should have, and we just needed to do a better job containing the big plays,” senior defensive end Joe Kawulok said.
A holding penalty on the kick return gave the Rams the ball at their own 12, but Stevens orchestrated an impressive final-minute drive, but wide receiver Jordon Vaden couldn’t get out of bounds at the Nevada 12-yard line after a 9-yard catch, and time ran out before CSU could run another play.
A heartbreaking ending, almost fitting for CSU’s season. One inch, one second or one yard more and things would have been different.
“Football is like life, there’s learning experiences,” Bobo said. “A football game is like that a lot of times. No matter how many times you cover things, sometimes guys are just in the moment. It’s going to be an experience that we learn from, and you hear coaches it say it all the time that that play didn’t cost us the game, there were a lot of of opportunities we had to win.”
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.