The Dec. 29 bowl matchup between Colorado State and Nevada is far from ideal. Two Mountain West teams in playing each other in a bowl game? That’s a joke. According to ESPN, no two teams from the same conference have played each other in a postseason bowl game since the 1979 Orange Bowl, which pitted Big Eight foes Nebraska and Oklahoma against each other.
Regardless, what’s done is done, and CSU is back in a bowl game for the third year in a row. When the Rams and Wolf Pack face off, it will be a chance for the Rams to win at least eight games for the second year in a row and build a bit of confidence and momentum going into the offseason.
So how do the Rams beat the Wolf Pack? Here you go:
Stop the run
Nevada’s calling card this year has been its run game, with two Wolf Pack backs each running for more than 1,000 yards during the regular season. Don Jackson (1,029 yards) and James Butler (1,153) have been workhorses this season, combining for 404 carries and 16 touchdowns. Quarterback Tyler Stewart has been no slouch either, rushing for 293 yards and four more touchdowns. They will look to run and run often on the Rams, who have struggled against the run at multiple points this season.
Don’t be surprised to see CSU load the box with eight and nine defenders, as they will try to make Stewart beat them through the air, where he’s struggled this year at times. Though he hasn’t turned the ball over — only seven interceptions — he’s completed just just 57 percent of passes and thrown for only 15 touchdowns.
CSU’s run defense will be hurt by the lost of hard-hitting safety Trent Matthews, but backups Jake Schlager and Nick Januska are more than capable of filling in. If the Rams can force Nevada into some third-and-long situations by stopping the run, they will be able to seriously limit the Wolf Pack on offense.
Hit the big plays
With the recent resurgence of star wide receiver Rashard Higgins, the Colorado State offense has been a jump in its number of explosive plays, as well. But, Higgins isn’t CSU’s only big-play threat. Dalyn Dawkins, Joe Hansley and Deionte Gaines have proven their ability to hurt defense in a variety of ways, and CSU would be smart to get the ball in their hands early and often.
The Wolf Pack’s defensive numbers haven’t been terrible, but they have been susceptible to the big play. And, that’s where CSU can take advantage. Quarterback Nick Stevens’ chemistry with his receiving corps has only grown throughout the year, and head coach Mike Bobo has taken a lot of the pressure off of him by relying on the running game.
Jasen Oden Jr. has been relatively healthy, and Izzy Matthews has shown his ability to break off 20- and 30-yard runs. There’s a bevy of playmakers on the CSU offense, they just have to find them.
Don’t take Nevada lightly
This bowl game wasn’t what CSU had hoped for. But, as disappointed as CSU may have initially been, there would be nothing more embarrassing than falling flat against a conference opponent you should beat.
CSU knows this all too well after getting shellacked 45-10 by Utah last year in the Las Vegas Bowl after watching head coach Jim McElwain leave Fort Collins for the greener pastures of Florida. The Rams were embarrassed, and that memory still burns in their collective minds.
The Wolf Pack lost to both Wyoming and UNLV earlier this year, but also handled Fresno State and stayed within striking distance of Utah State before losing 31-27. Nevada has just as much to play for in this one as CSU does, and the Rams can’t just expect to show up and win.
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.