When the players come out of the tunnel Saturday, the atmosphere in the on-campus stadium will be electric. With over 36,000 fans expected to be in attendance for the inaugural contest with Oregon State and a national audience watching on TV, the most relevant event in college football this weekend is right here in Fort Collins.
That being said, The glow of the national spotlight also brings pressure to succeed. Head coach Mike Bobo has often emphasized that the stakes have been raised at CSU and that the time to win is now.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup with Oregon State, the players understand the importance of this message and believe they are up for the task. The Rams endured an up and down 2016 season, including starting the season with a 44-7 blowout loss to Colorado and ending the season with a loss to Idaho in a game with weather conditions that looked like it was being played on Madden. This is a team that features players that are battle tested.
None more than starting center Jake Bennett. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2013, Bennett started the first three games of the 2014 season before tearing his ACL. Since his return in 2015, Bennett has started all 26 games. Having experienced the success of the 2014 season and being here through the coaching transition after Jim McElwain bolted for Florida, Bennett has been around for all the highs and lows of the last four seasons.
“You think you’re on the top of the world and then you get humbled with an injury,” Bennett said. “I’ve been fighting back the last three years and I think I’m probably the healthiest that I have ever been. So it’s just surreal that it’s actually my fifth year and I’m the old guy now.”
Now fully healthy, Bennett knows that he will serve an important role for this team as a leader. This was reflected when he was selected as a team captain.
As one of the vocal leaders of the team, Bennett knows that leading by example is crucial. “I think that is something that both Nick (Stevens) and myself have taken on this year,” Bennett said.
Bennett explained that during the team’s 2017 spring practices, both he and No. 7 really found their voice as the true leaders of the offense. Now that the season is here, that responsibility only heightens. Especially when it comes to consistently competing at Bobo’s standards.
“That is something that we really have been working on since since coach (Bobo) came in,” Bennett said. “With the change of system, guys had to adjust. But we’ve got our leadership groups and it’s something we’ve pushed. If you get the majority of the guys to follow you, the other 10 percent of guys are either going to sink or swim.”
Throughout the offseason, Bobo emphasized two standards more than anything else. The importance of getting off to a fast start and the importance of being a mentally strong football team that can compete for four quarters.
In each of Bobo’s first two seasons, slow starts in the early portion of the season resulted in the the team falling short of their ultimate goal of winning the Mountain West championship.
Following Tuesday’s practice, Bobo explained that he believes his team is ready for the challenge of facing the highly explosive OSU offense, but acknowledged that you never know until they actually go out and strap the pads on.
“You never really know how ready you are until you go out there and play and (see) what you have,” Bobo said.
While Bobo is confident in his group of guys, he knows that the Beavers are more than capable of putting points on the board and expects it to be a fight. What will ultimately be the biggest factor though is how the team responds with a counterpunch of their own.
OSU may be coming off of a 4-8 season but the Beavers won their final two games of 2016 by a combined score of 76-41. Not to mention that facing any Pac-12 opponent is a tough challenge for a Mountain West school during the first week of the season.
“I love the challenge we have,” Bobo said. “It’s going to help you when you get into those conference games. Playing these power five opponents that have a lot of depth and a lot of talent.”
Not only do the Rams have the challenge of facing a power five opponent in week one, but CSU will have to quickly rebound, as less than one week later they will square off with CU in Denver. Two weeks after, the green and gold will travel to Tuscaloosa for a game with the Crimson Tide.
“It’s going to test us,” Bobo said. “It’s going to test us and see how we handle when things are not going great. That was one thing we did not do too great last year on the (defensive) side of the ball. When things were going good, we played pretty good. But when things weren’t going well, we could not stop the tide.”
Collegian sports director Justin Michael can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @JustinTMichael.