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Michael: CSU in solid position with Stevens back at quarterback

CSU football has a bye week this weekend, but heading into the Nov. 5 matchup with Fresno State, the Rams are playing their best football of the season thus far and are in excellent position to compete for a fourth consecutive bowl appearance.

After being upset at home by Wyoming in early October, CSU has played three conference opponents this month and come away with a pair of crucial victories, including the most recent road blowout over UNLV (42-23). The loss to the Cowboys was certainly a wakeup call for head coach Mike Bobo and the Rams, but now sitting at .500 (4-4), the team appears to be coming together right as they enter the most important part of the season.

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Since reassuming the starting quarterback role, Nick Stevens has consistently played quality football and has shown improvement from week-to-week. After struggling mightily to convert on third down at Boise State the week before, the Ram offense converted 10-18 third down opportunities and 3-4 fourth down opportunities at UNLV, a key statistic in their dominance over the Running Rebels.

All game Stevens progressed through his reads and made well-timed throws to keep the chains moving and the offense on the field. Stevens does not have a big arm, but the redshirt junior showed excellent touch on multiple deep balls last Saturday, including a 37-yard dime to Olabisi Johnson, which put the Rams in position to go up 14-0 in the first quarter.

Stevens played pretty decent two weeks ago, but he did not start making the big plays until it was too late. Against UNLV, Stevens got the offense going early and it resulted in a 35-point halftime lead. Obviously UNLV is not the same caliber opponent as a Boise State, but Stevens deserves a lot of credit for his play in a must-win game.

Stevens played well Saturday, but like in any win, there were multiple aspects of the game in which CSU truly dominated. The offensive line dominated for the majority of the game, giving Stevens plenty of time in the pocket and creating huge gaps in the run-game.

Coming into the season this was an area of play that most expected the Rams to succeed in, but it has taken some time for this group to culminate as a unit. When the O-line plays like they did Saturday, there is not much this offense is not going to be able to do successfully. CSU averaged 4.6 yards per-carry and racked up 230 yards on the ground, complementing Stevens’ passing attack in what was an extremely well balanced offensive performance.

We have seen all season that the Rams have the talent in the backfield to compete with anyone they may face. We have not always seen a team however that can play complete football for an entire game and the proof is in the win-loss column. Even if the victory Saturday, UNLV managed to make things interesting by outscoring the Rams 23-7 in the second half.

In the third quarter of the last three games, CSU has been outscored 38-14 and has been shut out in the previous two. In the fourth quarter of those three games, CSU has outscored their opponents 34-20, 13 of which came in garbage time against UNLV.

After the loss to Boise State, Stevens and the offense needed to improve on third down and did. Now the offense needs to continue to grow and put together a solid four-quarter performance, and with two weeks to prepare for the Bulldogs, now is the opportunity. Through eight games, these programs are going in opposite directions and after starting 1-7, the Bulldogs fired head coach Tim DeRuyter Sunday.

This is a program in disarray and the Rams need to take advantage by securing a victory and getting one step closer to bowl eligibility. It has been an up and down year but CSU certainly has the superior talent in at least three of the four remaining games (Fresno State, Air Force, New Mexico, San Diego State). Stevens led this team to a bowl game in 2015, time to see if he can do it again in 2016.

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

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