“T.I.P.S.” for Colorado v. Colorado State – September 17, 2011 – in Denver
A number of questions about the Colorado football program will be answered this weekend:
Will the Buffs post their first win of the Jon Embree era against undefeated Colorado State in Denver?
Will the Colorado coaches be able to find – and keep healthy – five good offensive linemen?
Will the Rams be able to find a way to contain Paul Richardson? If they are able to do so, will Tyler Hansen be able to find an alternative receiver?
Will this be the weekend when the Colorado rushing game finally asserts itself?
Will the Buffs be able to keep Colorado State from scoring over 30 points (a feat which has eluded the Buffs in six of their last seven games, dating back to last season)?
Only one way to find out …
Here are this week’s “T.I.P.S.”
T – Talent
For the first time in his four seasons as head coach of the Colorado State Rams, Steve Fairchild has a returning starter at quarterback.
Pete Thomas was the only freshman quarterback in the nation to start every game last season. He got off to a rough start against Colorado, completing 24-of-33 passes for 196 yards, throwing three interceptions in a 24-3 loss. Thomas improved, though, over the course of the year, finishing with 2,662 yards passing and a school-record 64.7% completion rate. This week, Colorado head coach Jon Embree said of Thomas: “I see a kid that’s grown up as a quarterback. When you look at our game last year, obviously his first game ever, and then – I’ve been watching him a lot at San Diego State and BYU last year, seeing the progress he’s made, to this year, that really jumps out at me”.
In the first two games of the 2011 season, Thomas has thrown for over 500 yards, with a completion percentage of 73.5% in Ram victories over New Mexico (14-10) and Northern Colorado (33-14). Unlike Colorado, which has Paul Richardson and then pretty much no one else, Colorado State has six players with at least four catches so far in 2011. If Thomas has a favorite target, it would be sophomore tight end Crockett Gilmore, who has eight catches for 80 yards in the first two games. Sophomore fullback also has served as an outlet for Thomas, with ten catches for 70 yards this fall.
The Colorado State rushing attack was anemic last year, ranked 103rd in the nation overall. This fall, the Rams are starting over, with all new running backs, with some degree of success. To date, senior Raymond Carter has posted the most yards, with 146 in two games, followed by sophomore Chris Nwoke, with105 yards. The Rams returned four of five starters along the offensive line, contributing to the improved rushing attack (this is much of the same unit, though, which allowed Thomas to be sacked 44 times last season, including four by Colorado).
On defense, the Rams have been severely crippled by injuries. Senior linebacker Mychael Sisson led the team in tackles the past two seasons, led the Rams in sacks last fall, and led the nation in forced fumbles. Sisson, though broke his ankle last Saturday in the Rams’ win over Northern Colorado, and will be lost for most, if not all, of the 2011 season. Steve Fairchild said Tuesday that sophomore Shaquil Barrett, redshirt freshman Max Morgan and true freshman Aaron Davis all are getting a look as potential replacements for injured linebacker Mychal Sisson, in no particular order. “We’ve got a few days to mess around with it,” Fairchild said. “We’ll look at it, and what we think is best will start the game on Saturday.”
The Rams have also lost their best pash rusher, junior Broderick Sargent, out for the year with a knee injury. Sargent’s replacement, though, junior Nordly Capi, has ably stepped in so far. Capi set an NCAA record in forcing four fumbles in the game against New Mexico, the last of which he recovered to preserve the 14-10 win over the Lobos. Capi is currently tied for third in the nation in sacks, having posted 4.5 sacks in the first two games.
In the secondary, the good news for Colorado State fans is that three of the four starters from last season return. The bad news is that the unit produced only four interceptions last year (two so far this season).
I – Intangibles
Colorado State is 2-0; Colorado is 0-2. The game represents the first time since 1941 in which Colorado State has entered the rivalry game against the Buffs with a 2-0 or better record. The game represents the first time since 1939 in which Colorado enters the rivalry game with a record of 0-2 or worse. Truly, a unique situation.
How will the respective records play into how the players for each team prepare – emotionally – for the Rocky Mountain Showdown?
Momentum is fickle thing – especially when you are dealing with the attitudes and energy of 19- and 20-year olds.
Colorado State is coming off of consecutive 3-9 seasons. The Rams broke their own 11-game road losing streak with a win over New Mexico, and are shooting for only their second 3-0 start since 1994. Momentum is on their side.
Colorado, meanwhile, is coming off of five consecutive losing seasons. The Buffs had chances in the fourth quarters of both of their first two games, but lost each game. The Buffs, with six road games still on the schedule (not including the trip to Denver), are staring squarely into the eyes of a school record-tying sixth consecutive losing season.
Advantage: Colorado State.
That being said, there is one significant disadvantage that the Rams have in playing the Buffs on September 17th.
The element of surprise.
Since the series was resumed in 1983, Colorado has almost a 2-to-1 edge in victories when the game is the season opener (11-6).
When the game is not played as the season opener, however, Colorado’s winning percentage goes up significantly. The Buffs have won seven-of-eight such contests, with the lone setback coming in the lost season of 2006, when the Buffs inexplicably fell to Montana State in Dan Hawkins’ debut, only to play in a funk the following week in a 14-10 loss to Colorado State.
When the game is not played as the season opener, it can be argued, the opportunity for the Rams to spend their August game-planning for the Buffs is lost. While the Colorado State offensive and defensive schemes may have been more “vanilla” against Northern Colorado last weekend, with CSU coaches saving plays and formations for the game against Colorado, the Rams were in a dog fight against New Mexico in the opener, holding on for a 14-10 victory. There would have been little advantage in holding back against the Lobos when the game was on the line. As a result, Colorado coaches have good game film on the 2011 Rams from which to prepare.
It is safe to say that the Rams will come out on Saturday with emotion and confidence.
It will be up to the Buffs, who have yet to score a touchdown in the first half of a game, to restore order.
P – Preparation / Schedule
Both teams played at home last weekend. Both teams play on the road next weekend.
While Colorado faces a nationally ranked opponent in Ohio State, the Rams have a test of their own, going on the road to face Utah State. The Aggies were 4-8 last season, and were being counted on to be a victory for a Ram team trying to save its coaches job by going bowling in 2011. Instead, Utah State was a perfect onside kick away from defeating the defending national champion, Auburn, on The Plains. Utah State has this weekend off to watch the Rocky Mountain Showdown on television, and prepare to take another step towards membership in the Mountain West Conference.
Advantage: neither team.
There is something to be said about the schedules of both Colorado and Colorado State to date, however.
Colorado has been listed as a ten-point favorite, despite being winless and Colorado State being undefeated.
The reality: if Colorado State had faced Hawai’i and California to open the 2011 season, the Rams would likely be 0-2.
The reality: if Colorado had faced New Mexico and Northern Colorado to open the 2011 season, the Buffs would likely be 2-0.
The reality: fans will not know where these two teams really fit within the pecking order of 1-A teams until Saturday afternoon.
One advantage Colorado may well have on Saturday, though it may come as a surprise based upon the teams’ respective records.
It is being reported that Colorado has sold almost all (95%) of its 35,000 seat allotment, while Colorado State has sold only 16,000 of its allocation of 31,000 seats. If these numbers hold, Colorado would have around twice as many fans in attendance at the Rocky Mountain Showdown as does Colorado State.
Granted, the “walk-up” ticket sales for Colorado State this week are probably better than they are for Colorado, what with the chances for the Rams to win seemingly improved after two weeks of play.
But it will not be anywhere close to matching what the Buffs have already sold.
Provided Buff fans who have tickets (as required as part of their season ticket package) actually show up for the game …
S – Statistics
Okay, let’s get one statistic out of the way from the outset:
Colorado is dead last in the nation – 120th out of 120 teams – in kick returns.
“That’s crazy. I don’t understand. We should be significantly better,” head coach Jon Embree said of the dubious ranking. “Sometimes it’s the returner. Sometimes it’s guys running back and then not seeing who to block and losing sight of their man. It’s inexcusable, but we’re going to keep looking at some different guys back there who maybe have a little electricity cause I know we didn’t block it clean for Ben Kelly. He just had a knack. Hopefully we have somebody on the team who has a knack of hitting that hole.”
There is also the reality that the Buffs have only played two games, and have had only nine kickoff returns. Two or three decent returns, and Colorado breaks 100; one long return, and the Buffs are in the top 50 nationally. (Want more? LSU is ranked 118th in kickoff returns; Pac-12 rivals USC, Oregon, and UCLA are tied for 103rd);
Much ado about nothing … so far (don’t be surprised if true freshman D.D. Goodson makes his debut as a Buff against Colorado State. Makiri Pugh and Kyle Washington have also been mentioned as possible candidates).
Other stats worth knowing – and tracking:
– Colorado has almost as many rushing attempts as its first two opponents (60 to 63), but is well behind in yards gained (125 to 265), with a paltry 2.08 yards per carry;
– Colorado has been out-scored 30-3 in the second quarter, but holds a 28-14 scoring advantage in the third quarter;
– The Rams are trying to go 3-0 for only the second time since 1994, and only the third time since 1977 (for comparison, the Buffs have started 3-0 or better nine times during that span). In fact, the Rams have only gone 3-0 ten times in their history, with five of those instances coming prior to 1926!;
– The last two seasons in which Colorado State opened with a 2-0 record, they went on to endure a seven game losing streak (in 2006, finishing 4-8) and a nine game losing streak (in 2009, finishing 3-9);
– Overall, Colorado leads the series against Colorado State, 60-20-2, with a 6-4 record in games played in Denver;
– According to the CSU media release, Colorado State has more than 43,000 alumni in the Denver-Metro area; over 73,000 former students; and, including donors and “friends of the university”, there are over 100,000 “constituents” of the university in the Denver market … and the Rams have sold 16,000 tickets to the game, mostly to current students;
– Colorado has 36 players from the state of Colorado on its roster; Colorado State has 33. In the two-deep, the Buffs boast 19 locals, to nine for the Rams;
– Keep this one under your hat … Colorado State presently has 16 former players on NFL rosters, Colorado is down to 14 (never thought I’d see the day); and
– Colorado has been porous on third-down defense, giving up first downs 51.7% of the time (ranked 105th nationally). The good news – Colorado State has been poor in third-down conversions on offense (29.6%, ranked 101st nationally).