“T.I.P.S.” for Colorado State

Colorado/Colorado State Preview

One year ago, optimism abounded in the Buff Nation. Despite coming off of five straight losing seasons, there was an air of confidence in Boulder. After his hiring in December, 2010, new Colorado head coach Jon Embree restored enthusiasm, reinstated traditions, and inspired the Buff faithful. Season ticket sales soared, with an increase in sales normally only seen in the ticket office after ten or eleven win seasons.

Jon Embree did everything which could have been asked of him after he was hired.

Except win football games.

While Colorado fans understood that it would be some time before Jon Embree’s Buffs challenged for the Pac-12 title, a 3-10 season was not anticipated. Blowout losses to Ohio State, Stanford, Washington, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA were only mollified when CU managed to win two of its last three games, including a road losing-streak ending victory over Utah to end the season.

The 2012 season is now upon us, and while the college football intelligentsia have condemned Colorado to the bottom of the Pac-12, Buff fans are again excited about the possibilities which this fall’s calendar holds.

The 2011 season goal for the Buffs was a modest one – to win a game on the road.

The 2012 season goal for the Buffs ups the stakes – to earn a bowl bid.

The quest for this year’s goal begins Saturday against Colorado State.

(Note: For those new to CU at the Game, the preview is broken down into “T.I.P.S.”, or T-Talent; I-Intangibles; P-Preparation/Schedule; and S-Statistics).

T – Talent

Colorado State’s two-year starter at quarterback, Pete Thomas, is no longer with the team, having transferred to North Carolina State. This leaves first-year head coach Jim McElwain with a true sophomore for his starter, Garrett Grayson.  Last fall, Grayson did start the final three games after Thomas was injured, all losses. Grayson completed 44-of-73 passes for 542 yards, with two touchdowns and six interceptions. Grayson did, though, rush for almost 200 yards in those three games. All McElwain would say about Grayson in his press conference leading up to the Rocky Mountain Showdown was, “And we’re starting a quarterback that, yeah, he got some reps last year but how valuable were they? He hadn’t played in this rivalry game”. Reducing expectations, sand-bagging … or both?

The one star player on the CSU offense is running back Chris Nwoke. The junior back finished the season with 1,130 rushing yards – but many of those yards came in the last five games of the season, including two 200-yard games. Nwoke, though, has been nursing a high ankle sprain the past few weeks, and there is very little depth or talent backing him up. The offensive line which is going to be blocking for Nwoke is supposed to be good, with four returning starters and an eight man rotation. (Raise your hand, though, if you are amongst those who thought that a “rotation” of offensive linemen, as implemented during the Dan Hawkins’ era at CU, was a failure waiting to happen).

The receivers are somewhat better than last year, a step up from the sorry group from last season. The best receiver again this fall is not a receiver, but a tight end. Junior Crockett Gilmore was a second-team All-Mountain West player last year, and had five catches for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Buffs in the 28-14 CU victory in the RMS last September. Sophomore wide receiver Thomas Coffman was being relied upon to stretch defenses, but he has an abdomen injury and may miss the RMS. Senior Lou Greenwood was second in receptions and yards to Crockett last season, but he is now second on the Rams’ depth chart. Overall, CU defensive coordinator Greg Brown couldn’t have asked for a much easier lineup to face in breaking in his freshmen defensive backs Kenneth Crawley and Yuri Wright.

On defense, a great deal of time has been spent on the internet this August debating the CSU defensive line. The RamNation sees the glass has half full, while much of the rest of the planet sees the CSU defensive line as a definite weakness waiting to be exploited. Due to losses to graduation and injury, the Rams have been piecing together a line consisting of defensive end Shaquil Barrett, who led the team last year … as a linebacker, and a bunch of guys with “potential”.  The linebackers would have been an area of strength, but CSU’s best two defenders, Nordly Capi and Mike Orakpo, were kicked off the team this past spring for off-field incidents. Senior James Skelton, who was third on the team in tackles in 2011, is the best of what’s left. The secondary consists of one very good player – senior cornerback Momo Thomas – two sophomores and a freshman.

The kicking game is a mixed bag. The punter, senior Pete Kontodiakos, is very good (20th in the nation last season), but the Rams are at a loss to find a new kicker, with sophomore Jared Ross to get his shot against the Buffs in the opener.

I – Intangibles

As long as the University of Colorado remains short-sighted enough to allow the Rocky Mountain Showdown to be played as the first game of the season (which is the case for every game for the remainder of the decade except for 2015, when CU, as was the case last season, opens on the road against Hawai’i), I will continue to give the nod in this category to Colorado State.

It’s bad enough that this game is played at all. It’s worse that it is played in Denver, before ever smaller crowds.

But it is insanity to allow little brother Colorado State an entire month to prepare for their Super Bowl.

Colorado, historically, has won about 75% of its games played against Colorado State (61-20-2, .747). That statistic is not just based upon leather helmet games. The percentage holds when you consider games played since the series was resumed in 1983 ( CU leads, 18-6, .750). If you look, however, at games played against Colorado State since 1983 – when not the first game of the season – the record goes to 8-1, or .888 (with the sole loss coming in the lost season of 2006, Dan Hawkins’ first year in Boulder).

The math is simple. Give CSU a week to prepare for the Buffs, and their chances of victory are roughly one-in-nine.

Give them a month, and their chances are raised to one-in-four. Not great – but certainly better.

Any intangibles which go the Buffs’ way?

There is the fact that, for a change, Colorado enters the game with a few unknowns of their own. While the BuffNation mourned the loss of daily internet reports of progress made in Fall Camp, the closing of practices does give the Buffs some elements of surprise of their own which they previously did not possess.

As for the Rams playing their first game under a new head coach, I look at it as a wash.

The Rams will certainly be anxious to play well for their new head coach, and will come into the game with an extra bounce to their steps with the failed Steve Fairchild experiment behind them.

This positive, though, can – and probably should – be out-weighed by the Rams adjusting to new systems on both offense and defense. It’s tough early on with a new system.

Remember the enthusiasm which greeted “Return to Dominance” and Gary Barnett in 1999? An embarrassing loss to Colorado State (with the Buffs ranked No. 14 in the nation) 41-14.

Remember the enthusiasm which greeted Dan Hawkins in 2006, winner of 50 games in five seasons at Boise State? An embarrassment for the ages: Montana State 19, Colorado 10.

Remember the enthusiams which greeted the “Brick Game” in Jon Embree’s debut against Hawai’i last fall? A 17-0 halftime deficit on the way to a 34-17 loss.

Mark it down … If Colorado can avoid mistakes and big plays in the first quarter against Colorado State – giving the Rams false hope – the Buffs should prevail.

P – Preparation/Schedule

Joy to the World! We don’t have to lead off this segment – and this season – talking about CU’s inability to win a game on the road!

Instead, we can talk about Colorado State’s inability to win … pretty much at all.

Most Buff fans can tell you that Colorado, in an otherwise forgettable season, finished the 2011 campaign with two wins in its last three games.

Care to guess what streak the Rams are on?

Try an eight game losing streak.

After opening with a 3-1 record last fall (with the only loss coming against Colorado), the Rams finished with eight straight losses. This demise is somewhat similar to what happened to Colorado State in 2009, the first of the Rams’ three consecutive 3-9 seasons. In that year, Colorado State opened 3-0, and then lost its next nine games.

Saddled with that losing streak, the Rams faced Colorado in the 2010 opener. The result? Colorado 24, Colorado State 3.

While the Preparation/Schedule category will be of greater weight later in the season, it is worth taking a look ahead to next week.

At first glance, it appears to be a non-issue. Both teams have a full week to prepare, both will be at home, and both will play 1-AA schools.

There is a difference, however.

Colorado will be playing Sacramento State, a Big Sky school coming off of a 4-7 season. The Hornets did have their moment in the sun, upsetting Oregon State in the opener, 29-28, (a game which we will discuss in detail next week), Sacramento State had only two victories in October and November last season, with those wins coming over two teams (Idaho and Northern Colorado) with a combined record of 2-20.

Colorado State, meanwhile, will be facing the Football Championship Series champions, North Dakota State. The Bison went 14-1 last season, including a 37-24 victory over Minnesota. In fact, North Dakota State has posted a 5-3 record over Division 1-A (FBS schools) the last six seasons.

While Colorado State certainly will not be looking past their hated rivals towards their second game, the Rams also should not be taking Game Two for granted …

S – Statistics

Another category which will have more bearing as the season goes on. For now, however, it doesn’t hurt to look back to look forward.

When two teams with a combined record of 6-19 square off, there are going to be numerous areas which will require improvement. Colorado and Colorado State won a total of three conference games last season, and went 0-7 against ranked teams.

How did we get there?

For starters, look at the bottom line. Both teams ranked 100th or worse in scoring, with CSU posting 21 points per game; CU 20. Some fans are looking for a shootout in this year’s Rocky Mountain Showdown (in the 24 games played since the series resumed in 1983, on only three occasions has the loser failed to score at least ten points – all three were CU wins, BTW). Still, if 2011 is any sort of a guide, points will be at a premium in the 2012 opener.

Other than the scoreboard itself, another statistic to keep an eye on Saturday will be rushing yardage. Behind Chris Nwoke, the Rams were 44th in the nation in rushing offense, while Colorado was 89th in rushing defense. Colorado, for its part, was 106th in the nation in rushing offense last year, and that was with four-year starter Rodney Stewart in the backfield. Colorado State, though, was 116th out of 120 teams in rushing defense, giving up 233.7 yards per game. Several of the Rams’ best defenders, as noted above, are no longer with the team, and the defensive line is patchwork at best. As a result, the RMS is a prime opportunity for the Buffs to demonstrate their desire (and ability) to play smash-mouth football. In the 2011 game, though, Colorado, against one of the worst rushing defenses in the nation, managed only 145 net rushing yards. If CU can top 200 yards on Saturday, it will be a dominating win for the Buffs.

Another statistic worth watching is third-down conversions. CU fans wince at the mention of this category, as the Buffs were horrid in third down conversions in 2011 (99th in the nation), and even worse stopping the opposition (102nd). The Rams, though, were just as awful, ranking 106th in third-down conversion offense; 88th in third-down conversion defense. The team which can sustain drives will be the victor Saturday.

Did I mention sustaining drives? What are drive killers? Penalties and turnovers. In last season’s Rocky Mountain Showdown, Colorado committed ten penalties for 114 yards (and it was the third game of the season!). The Rams fared little better, racking up nine penalties for 75 yards. Whichever team – and they are both young and inexperienced – can keep from incurring game changing penalties will have the best chance at victory. As for turnovers, there was only one last year, but it was costly (remember the partially blocked punt, which then took a bounce at hit a CSU defender, allowing CU to retain possession just before halftime, leading to a score and a 14-7 lead at the break? If you don’t, here’s a link to last year’s game recap). The RMS is an emotional game, and nothing can turn emotions more quickly than turnovers.

Reviewing all of the above, I believe you can objectively come to the conclusion that Colorado should win the game. However, Colorado State prepares for, and plays, this game harder than any other game. It’s the Rams’ Super Bowl, and they have had a month to prepare.

The first quarter will be even more important than usual. Head coach Jim McElwain will throw his best shots at the Buffs early, hoping to gain an edge in momentum. The best strategy for Colorado, however, is to be patient, and wear down the Rams with a steady, non-flashy, domination in the trenches.

CU fans will head into Sports Authority Field at Mile High with an understandable degree of confidence (and, if reports are correct, at least a 2-to-1, and perhaps 3-to-1, advantage in terms of fans). The Buff fans (and players, for that matter) cannot expect to be ahead 14-0 after two minutes of play. The Buffs must withstand the early storm, and slowly, but efficiently, take care of business the rest of the way.

Colorado 24, Colorado State 13.

5 Replies to “Colorado State – Preview”

  1. Thanks for the write up. A question concerning CSU’s offensive line: What has changed between their spring game and now, to have the line that gave up a reported 27 sacks to a supposedly weak defensive line, to now being considered as a good unit?

    1. Spin … Just like CU fans are excited about a defensive line which needed nine recruits this past February. Topou and others may prove to be the real deal, but, until proven otherwise, the defensive line is a concern. Embree did single out the Rams’ center as being one of the best two players on the offense (with Nwoke being the other). Still, how and whether the CSU offensive line can dominate the CU defensive line will be one of the interesting storylines this Saturday

  2. Ah – so good to be able to read T.I.P.S. the week – I’ve been looking forward to this since last Thanksgiving. As always, awesome analysis and insight Stuart!

    I think the fact that we have so many new faces, including our QB, will help us. The don’t know much about the dynamics of this game, so won’t get caught in the typical mindset. They will be focused on playing well to make a positive impression on Buff Nation, so any thoughts of hoping we don’t look past them should be out the window. Quite frankly, we haven’t had the talent to look past anyone in a long while. That may be an issue in a couple of years when these Freshmen are upperclassmen and expectations are higher (i.e., goals include more than just going to a bowl).

    Go Buffs!

  3. Stuart,

    Good analysis and I agree with you. One problem that we have to be careful of is the constant “little brother” talk about CSU. I have been as guilty as anyone. Until our team has truly returned to national powerhouse, I don’t think we can afford or deserve to treat any team as second rate. Everyone says that this is CSU’s bowl game/Super Bowl. Of course it is. Because it is the any chance for them to tell us to shut up with the “little brother” stuff. I was the oldest of 4 boys and 2 girls in my family and to this day if my younger brothers get a chance to out do me they will and we are in our early to mid 30’s or later.

    I hate this game because I feel like it is a game that we should win every year but the Rams come out with something to prove. Our Buffs should come out with something to prove as well. Prove that you are more than what everyone thinks you are. Prove you are better than a 3-10 record. Prove you are better than a team operating under a first year coach with a depleted talent cupboard. Prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. You will not scare them with black and gold uniforms.

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