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Jalen Hurts, Alabama present conundrum for CSU defense

Senior Safety Jake Schlager (8) pumps up the crowd before a third down stop by the defense during the second half of the game vs. Oregon State. (Javon Harris | Collegian)

When the Colorado State defense takes the field against Alabama on Saturday night, they will be tasked with containing what is on paper the most talented offense they will face all season.

While the Crimson Tide have always had playmakers at running back and wide receiver, head coach Nick Saban has not had a quarterback of Jalen Hurts’ skillset at his disposal. As a true freshman last year, Hurts was the team’s second-leading rusher and his 954 rushing yards broke the program record for most rushing yards by a quarterback.

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Hurts already has 104 more rush yards this season than the next closest teammate, running back Damien Harris. Though some of his damage does come on designed quarterback keepers, his ability to improvise is something CSU head coach Mike Bobo has taken note of.

“They’ve got the designed zone-reads and quarterback runs and quarterback powers that (Hurts) can hurt you on,” Bobo said. “But what he really, really hurts you on is when they call passes and his ability to make plays with his legs outside the pocket. The challenge is going to be to contain him as a quarterback.”

Hurts’ talent and impact in the Alabama offense is impossible to ignore. But for senior safety Jake Schlager, watching film and studying Hurts’ tendencies enables the defense to know what to expect come Saturday.

“Watch him on film…Jalen Hurts is an incredible athlete and he’s down there for a reason and he’s their starting quarterback for a reason,” Schlager said in regards to the team’s preparations. “You can’t really prepare yourself for something like that during the week, it’s just expecting stuff and knowing what you’re going to have to do on Saturday.”

However, because the Alabama offense is far from one-dimensional, the Rams cannot focus solely on stopping Hurts. Should they bring added pressure to limit his rushing potential, a talented wide receiver corps led by Calvin Ridley finds itself with juicy one-on-one matchups on the outside. If instead they decide to play coverage, Hurts and running backs Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Najee Harris will have plenty of room to roam.

With so many ways to beat a defense, the opportunity to convert an explosive play is bound to present itself for Saban’s offense. While Bobo realizes that limiting those big plays is crucial, the way his team responds to any lapses is just as important.

“I’ve seen a big, big improvement from our defense in limiting the number of explosive plays,” Bobo said. “We’d love not to give up any explosives, but sometimes that’s not going to happen. When they do happen, line back up and play again.”

The defense was tested with an explosive offense when they squared off against a Colorado unit that returned six wide receivers and an all-conference running back in Phillip Lindsay . To their credit, the Buffs were held to just one explosive play in a 45-yard touchdown run. What’s more, the defense did exactly as Bobo hoped for and bounced back to allow just 10 points for the rest of the game.

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DENVER-Junior Linebacker Josh Watson (55) stares down the CU Quarterback on defense in the 1st half of the Rams 17-3 loss to in the Rocky Mountain Showdown. (Javon Harris | Collegian)

This mental toughness on the defensive side of the ball will be necessary in overcoming any big plays that may come about.

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“Our defense has played really well this year,” senior linebacker Josh Watson said. “A couple explosive plays, but we’ve corrected them on the sideline and really been able to stop what they’ve been doing and continue to build momentum.”

“It just goes to show the maturity and how far we’ve come since last year,” Schlager added. “It’s really about moving on and attacking the next play…The way that we’ve been attacking practice, attacking the season, attacking every Saturday has definitely shown.”

Though the Rams have had practice against explosive offenses, something impossible to replicate is the size that Alabama possess. On the offensive line, every starter weighs in above 300 pounds. In the backfield, all three running backs weigh at least 220 pounds. Combined with the size and speed throughout the defense, this Alabama team is unlike anyone the Rams have faced all year.

“It’s going to be hard to replicate the size and speed of this team,” Bobo said. “We’ve got to focus on us and make sure we understand our plan extremely well. We’re confident in our plan and we’ve got to go play.”

The Rams will have their final practice of the week Wednesday afternoon before conducting a walk through on Thursday and traveling to Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Friday. Kickoff is set for Saturday, Sept. 16 at 5 p.m. MT in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Collegian sports editor Colin Barnard can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @ColinBarnard_.

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