Last year’s Rocky Mountain Showdown could only be described as embarrassing for Colorado State football.
After getting trounced 44-7 in a game where the Rams did not record a first down until the second quarter and ultimately resulted in the benching of starting quarterback Nick Stevens, it is safe to say the 2016 RMS was one of worst performances by this program in recent memory.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth,” Jamal Hicks said. Hicks, who made his collegiate debut as a true freshman in last year’s game, is one of the many players looking forward to a chance at redemption.
Throughout practice this week, one of the common themes on both sides of the ball was the importance of having a better showing against their in-state rival.
The team got on the right track by taking care of business against Oregon State last Saturday. Now, Friday’s matchup with CU offers a chance for the green and gold to exorcise the demons of 2016 and continue working towards the greater goals of the season.
“We kind of feel ourselves right now,” Hicks said. “We feel very confident. We just knocked off a PAC-12 team, so I feel like we can beat CU. I feel like everybody else believes we can beat CU, so why not us?”
Along with the benefit of already having gotten some of the cobwebs out by playing and winning a game, CSU is heading into the 2017 RMS with a different level of swagger. That confidence is warranted.
During the second half of last season, CSU was one one of the most explosive and efficient offenses in the country. Dating back to the the last two games of 2016, the Rams have now scored 50+ points in three straight games and could not look any different from the team that got thumped in Denver last season.
On top of that, while the performance was one of the worst of Stevens’ career, there were plenty of other factors for why the 2016 game resulted in a 37-point blowout. None more than the experience gap.
“Last year we were really young,” Hicks said. “I feel like we have a better understanding of what the coaches expect from us. The team chemistry on defense is way different than last year. I feel like everybody bonds more. We trust each other more than we did last year.”
Contrarily, Colorado was one of the most experienced teams in the nation in 2016. Highlighted by then-senior quarterback Sefo Liufau and one of the best defensive secondaries in all of college football, CU was a team that had grown together after three years of losing and the Rams were the first of many opponents to feel their wrath.
2017 is a different situation. On offense, CSU is littered with veteran options under center, in the backfield and in the receiving corps. The biggest difference is on defense though, where CSU returned eight starters. That experience was evident in the victory over Oregon State.
When the Beavers came out in the first half and quickly put points on the board, primarily with explosive plays, CSU could have easily folded and let the Beavers dominate them offensively. Instead, they rallied and put together a dominant second half performance.
In the first quarter, OSU quarterback Jake Luton was able to connect with tight end Timmy Hernandez for a 39-yard touchdown. Then early in the second, running back Ryan Nall was able to bust through the heart of the CSU defense with a 75-yard touchdown run.
From that point on, the CSU defense only gave up one more touchdown in the game and it came after Olabisi Johnson muffed a punt, which resulted in the Beavers getting the ball on the CSU 23-yard line.
What was particularly impressive about the Rams defensive effort in the game was their dominance in the turnover margin (+4). According to Hicks, this was the biggest factor in the win, highlighted by linebacker Tre Thomas’ pick-six in the third quarter.
That display of mental toughness and “bend, don’t break mentality” is what may ultimately be the biggest factor in the RMS this year. With both teams expected to light up the scoreboard on offense, the game could very well come down to a single impact play or two.
If Colorado puts points on the board, the defense cannot lose focus or stop competing. As the Rams displayed in their victory over OSU, much can happen in the course of an entire game.
Ultimately, this is a game that most will not give the Rams a chance to win, but this is very much a game that is up for grabs. CSU has the talent and speed on both sides of the ball to compete with the Buffs. If they do not beat themselves, the Rams should compete from start to finish.
Collegian sports director Justin Michael can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @JustinTMichael.