Remembering the 1997 Rams: CSU’s top football squad

Ethan Lee

The Colorado State Rams football teams of the 1990s and 2000s were no strangers to winning. Under the direction of legendary coach Sonny Lubick, the Colorado State Rams reached eight wins or more in seven of the years Lubick coached. The highest single season win total in program history came in 1997 as the Rams achieved an overall record of 11-2. 

The Rams’ historic season got off to an up and down start, as an opening day 32-point lead victory over Nevada was quickly overshadowed by a devastating double-digit loss to the nationally ranked Colorado Buffs. The Rams bounced back and earned an impressive road win over Utah State only to suffer a 24-point blowout loss at the hands of Air Force. 

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CSU quarterback Moses Moreno during the Rams’ season opener against the University of Nevada. The Rams won the game by a score of 45-13. (Photo courtesy of John Hirn, CSU Athletics Historian)

With a 2-2 record four weeks into the season, the Rams were in need of a quick turnaround. 

A humbled Rams squad regrouped and tallied off seven straight regular season wins. The streak began with a dominant 63-point shutout victory versus Hawaii. The momentum continued to build as the Rams then bested their bitter rival Wyoming on the Pokes’ home turf. The regular season was capped off with a double-digit victory over conference rivals San Diego State.

The Rams’ 7-1 conference record earned them their third conference championship in four years.  With an overall record of 10-2 and a national ranking of 17th, the Rams headed into bowl season firing on all cylinders. 

A bid to the Holiday Bowl put the Rams in familiar territory. Not only would 35 of the Ram players be returning to play in their home state of California, but it would also be the school’s third trip to the Holiday Bowl in the last four seasons. However, the 1994 and 1995 squads were unable to bring the trophy home as they fell to current Power Five opponents Michigan and Kansas State.

The ’97 team faced a similar challenge against nationally-ranked Missouri from the Big 12 Conference. The Rams were solid on both sides of the ball but trailed by three early in the third quarter. With Missouri leading 17-14, the Tigers punted the ball to the Rams’ electrifying return man Darran Hall. Hall fielded the punt inside the Rams’ 20-yard line and returned it nearly 85 yards for a touchdown. 

The Rams maintained their four-point lead and entered the fourth quarter up 28-24. With 10:44 to play, the Rams sent out the field goal unit, hoping to extend the lead to seven. As fans held their breath with anticipation, backup quarterback/holder Ryan Eslinger took the snap and ran up the middle for a 23-yard touchdown. Lubick’s bold risk paid off as the Rams came away with a 35-24 victory.

After the game, Colorado State quarterback and California native Moses Moreno was given the MVP award. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” Moreno said. “Two local boys coming home and playing their hearts out supported by a great team.” 

With the season in the books, it was time for the members of the 1997 team to be recognized for their individual contributions. Six Rams players were named to the All-WAC first team. Five other players received second-team All-WAC honors. Coach Lubick also earned All-WAC honors, receiving the Conference Coach of the Year award.

Running back Damon Washington and head coach Sonny Lubick during the 1997 season. (Photo courtesy of John Hirn, CSU Athletics Historian)

The most prestigious individual awards were given to quarterback Moreno, who was named WAC Offensive Player of the Year, and offensive lineman Anthony Cesario, who was named a second-team All-American. 

While the collegiate achievements of the 1997 Rams football team are impressive on their own, the truly astonishing feat was how many players eventually reached the professional level. Five members of the 1997 squad were eventually selected in the NFL draft. Most notably, Cesario and Joey Porter were both selected in the third round of their respective drafts. 

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In 2017, the 1997 squad received the ultimate form of recognition when they were inducted into the Colorado State University Athletics Hall of Fame. Several of the members of the 1997 team, including Moreno, Porter and coach Lubick, have also been inducted into the CSU Athletics Hall of Fame.

The 1997 football team’s single season win total has never been matched. To this day, they remain the golden standard that every new team strives to achieve. 

Ethan Lee can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @EthanLee_99.