Michael: Minnesota game is turning point for 2016 season

Justin Michael

After starting the season with the worst scenario possible, a 44-7 blowout loss to Colorado, Colorado State has regained some mojo with back-to-back home wins over UTSA and UNC. Now the Rams have an even bigger challenge when they take on Minnesota on the road this Saturday.

CSU may have opened the week as 14.5 point underdogs to Minnesota, but this game is a crucial moment in the season for a young Rams team. Nobody expects CSU to travel and knock off a Big Ten opponent, so if the green and gold are able to pull an upset or even hang and play a tough game, it will be a big boost to the overall confidence of the team as they transition into Mountain West play.

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When CSU traveled to Alabama in Sept. 2013, they were coming off of a double-digit loss to CU (41-27), a brutal road loss at Tulsa (30-27) and a modest 34-17 victory over Cal Poly. CSU was nearly a 40-point underdog to Alabama and If the Rams lost to the Crimson Tide by 50, nobody would have blinked an eye.

On that night, the Rams came out swinging and fought toe-to-toe with one of the nation’s best football programs. CSU ultimately lost the ballgame 31-6, but the final score was padded by two late fourth quarter touchdowns from Alabama to seal the deal.

Some say there is no such thing as mental victories in sports, or a loss is a loss no matter how well the team played, but honestly that is just not true. After starting the season the way CSU did, they easily could have laid down and let Alabama do what they do on a weekly basis, but they fought and you could see the effect it had on CSU moving forward.

I think of this Alabama game as the night Garrett Grayson turned into the dominant quarterback that he would be for the rest of his collegiate career. Grayson completed 24-of-38 passes for 228 yards, keeping the Rams in the game, when they were overmatched physically in the run game. 13 of those completions went to Rashard Higgins and Joe Hansley, a tandem that would thrive with Grayson moving forward.

The Ram offense would go on to score at least 25 points in every game except one in the 2013 season, eventually coming away with a thrilling three-point victory over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl, but that run as a team started when they realized they could play with anybody in the country if they executed their game.

In 2014, even after starting the season 2-1, CSU was once again the underdog when they travelled across the country to take on Boston College. Down by four with 1:02 remaining in the game, Grayson threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Charles Lovett for the winning score.

After overcoming Boston College, the Rams would not lose again until the final week of the season, and it once again started with the Rams hanging tough in a road game that nobody thought they could win.

After losing to CU this season, CSU has now lost their last four games against opponents from the power-five, including when Minnesota traveled to Fort Collins in 2015. This factor, combined with the Rams inexperience, has most people expecting the Gophers to win easily Saturday.

As we saw in both 2013 and 2014, expectations do not always matter though.

After using three quarterbacks and four players in the backfield so far this season, Minnesota really does not have much to go off as far as scouting the offense goes. After finally discovering a passing game against UNC and Dalyn Dawkins expected to rejoin the offense Saturday, the Rams will be able to surprise the Gophers offensively.

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The reality is Minnesota is a much more experienced team and they outweigh the Rams at probably every position, but let’s not kid ourselves and pretend the Gophers are the class of the Big Ten. If there was ever an opportunity to go out and shock the world, it would be this Saturday.

More importantly, Saturday provides an opportunity for CSU to rebound against a tough opponent, after dropping the ball against CU. If CSU goes out and plays well against a tough Minnesota team, it can only do positive things for a young team and an even younger quarterback.

Collegian sports reporter Justin Michael can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or Twitter @JustinTMichael.