In the week leading up to the Minnesota game, Colorado State defensive coordinator Marty English said the key to the Rams defense improving third down efficiency would simply be competing.
Over the course of Saturday’s 31-24 loss to Minnesota, the Rams did come out and compete against a tough Minnesota offense, but the team was unable to capitalize and follow through on assignments when it mattered most.
“Tremendous effort from our guys,” coach Mike Bobo said of the Minnesota game. “Lack of execution in some critical times during the game most importantly to me is third downs, we have to do a better job defensively on third down.”
It was the third down defensive bug that undid the Rams against Minnesota. It is a facet of the game that the team has struggled mightily in throughout the season, and though there was an emphasis on improvement leading up to the game, it did not show on Saturday.
The Gophers finished the day 7-for-13 on third downs, and quarterback Mitch Leidner finished the game a coolly efficient 16-20 passing.
The team’s biggest problem on third down was their inability to put pressure on Leidner, and the secondary did not successfully challenge receivers, especially on third-and-longs.
Far too often, the defensive backs played too far off of receivers, and opened the door for Leidner to complete 80 percent of his passes.
“If we are gonna pressure them and make the ball come out faster we have to tighten our coverage,” defensive coordinator Marty Englsih said. “That’s point blank. I don’t know what else to say other than we better go compete and we better go challenge.”
Now, it’s about moving on from Minnesota and making sure a repeat defensive performance does not happen. The coaching staff and the players know where they went wrong, there just has to be a concerted effort to make a change.
English said that the problem is not situational awareness, the coaches and the defenders make sure everyone knows the down and distance. The problem is that his secondary is not stepping up and competing with wide receivers like they need to.
“We know the situation, some of it’s just totally unacceptable that it’s not getting done,” English said. “You have to go press, you have to go challenge. Those are things that are expected of them and we have to go get it done. We gotta to work on it more in practice and if you are doing it in practice you better go get it done in the game.”
And that’s the emphasis now,not doing it just in practice, but getting it done on Saturday’s. Bobo and English have said that they like what they see out of their defenders in practice. They know their assignments. They are eager to compete with each other and challenge and make plays in practice, but once the game hits, they lose some trust in themselves.
“I think we are doing it during the week,” Bobo said. “You got to trust what you have done all week during practice in your preparation and you have to go out there and trust those techniques in the game.”
So this week, the Rams are changing the way they practice to emphasize third down defense. Whereas Monday’s are normally only scout periods, the team ran third down situational periods for extra reps. And the team has been running more “good-on-good,” or the defensive first group versus the offensive first group to simulate game speed, and bring out more competition.
Bobo likes the way his team has responded, but he has liked it all year in practice. Now, he has to see someone put it in play on a Saturday.
“We practice it all the time and we do the right things we have to carry that over into a game,” Bobo said. “It’s letting go, it’s letting go and trusting it and being the playmakers that we think you are because of what you did in practice. We have tried to make it more game like this week.”
In the end, the key to fixing the third down defense is simple, but it is exactly what the team was not able to do against Minnesota.
“Make plays, thats just it,” defensive lineman Jakob Buys said. “We missed way to many plays just to get off the field. We need to make our plays and capilatize on our opportunities.”
The defense has their chance to correct their third down flaws Saturday Oct. 1, when Colorado State (2-2) battles Wyoming (2-2) for the Bronze Boot at Hughes Stadium at 8:15 p.m.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5