In light of the impending Rocky Mountain Showdown between the Colorado Buffaloes and in-state rival Colorado State this Friday night at Sports Authority Field, the CU Independent’s Justin Guerriero spoke with Colin Barnard, sports editor at the Rocky Mountain Collegian, to get some inside information regarding the 2017 CSU Rams.
Justin Guerriero: How bitter are the Rams in regards to last year’s Rocky Mountain Showdown? Is this team eager to avenge that blowout loss?
Colin Barnard: In a word, yes. Over the last few days, numerous CSU players have described the embarrassment felt from last year’s blowout. They understand the pride associated with the rivalry and are absolutely looking to avenge the loss. That said, the Rams aren’t letting last year’s result affect this year’s preparation. They are excited for a fresh start and another opportunity to prove they can compete with CU.
JG: Tell me about Nick Stevens. What is the Rams senior quarterback capable of? How can he hurt Colorado’s defense and what weapons are at his disposal at wide receiver?
CB: The Nick Stevens of last year’s Rocky Mountain Showdown is long gone. As CU fans know, Stevens struggled mightily against the Buffs before being benched for backups Faton Bauta and Collin Hill. Bauta’s ineffectiveness and Hill’s injury reopened the door for Stevens in week 7, and he ran with it. For the rest of the season, Stevens completed north of 70 percent of his passes while leading the second best scoring offense in the FBS.
While Stevens can certainly make big plays over the top, his biggest strength is efficiency. After regaining the starting position, Stevens threw for 19 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. His ability to take care of the ball will be necessary if the Rams want to compete with CU.
At wide receiver, the Rams return their top two receivers from a season ago in Michael Gallup and Olabisi Johnson. After proving himself as one of the best receivers in the conference last season, Gallup was named to the preseason All-Mountain West first team. Johnson broke the program record for receiving yards (265) in the team’s Potato Bowl loss to Idaho and comes into the season with plenty of confidence.
In addition to the two proven threats at receiver, Detrich Clark is a player the Rams are expecting big things from. The speedster plays primarily in the slot but also takes snaps in the wildcat. That versatility is something the Rams will look to utilize throughout the matchup. More so than anything else, the comfort level of CSU on offense has increased tenfold from last year’s debacle. These players have experience succeeding with each other, and that success has followed them into 2017.
JG: Colorado will need to limit the Rams’ effectiveness on the ground. Who will win that battle? CSU’s tailbacks or the Buffaloes’ front seven defenders?
CB: The Rams’ biggest strength at running back is depth. Last year’s top rushers Dalyn Dawkins and Izzy Matthews return to lead a stable of four productive rushers. Behind them are Rashaad Boddie and Marvin Kinsey Jr., and all four will see substantial playing time on Friday.
Given the depth, I expect the Rams to win this battle. They can consistently rotate fresh legs and keep attacking what looks like an inexperienced defensive line for CU. That being said, the talent the Buffs return at linebacker can limit the effectiveness of the rushing attack. But late in drives when the defense is breathing heavy, the Rams will have the advantage in the backfield.
JG: What is CSU’s secondary like? Are they ready for the handful they’re about to get with CU’s nearly endless supply of talented wideouts?
CB: This could be the biggest mismatch of the game. While CSU does return experience throughout the defense, the talent from CU’s receiving unit is more than problematic for a team susceptible to giving up big plays. Wide receiver-turned cornerback Anthony Hawkins joins Kevin Nutt and Justin Sweet as the team’s primary cornerbacks while Jamal Hicks, Jordan Fogal and Jake Schlager will all rotate at safety.
During the victory over Oregon State, the secondary had its ups and downs. Early in the first quarter, Hawkins got beat badly for a 39-yard touchdown pass. He rebounded and later recorded an interception in the third quarter. His continued development as a cornerback will be necessary to monitor throughout the night. If the cornerbacks can hang with the Buffs’ receivers early, that confidence may allow the secondary to stay competitive.
One thing the secondary does use to its advantage is practicing against such a talented group of receivers on a daily basis. On many occasions, members of the secondary have pointed out their ability to learn from receivers who are better than many they will face all year.
JG: What is the Rams’ biggest strength and biggest weakness as a team?
CB: The Rams’ biggest strength is in the passing game. Gallup looks every bit of an NFL wide receiver, and his rapport with Stevens intensified throughout last year. After his 11-catch, 134-yard performance against OSU, Gallup said he was used as a decoy for the game. If that is true, it’s scary to think how involved he can be on a weekly basis.
In addition to the strong passing game, experience is another huge advantage for the Rams. Of the 22 starters on offense and defense last week, an incredible 14 of them were seniors. This is a unit who has grown together and is comfortable playing with each other.
One area that can hurt the Rams is an unproven pass rush. If Steven Montez has ample time to pick apart the secondary, it could be disastrous for the CSU defense. Last week, the Rams recorded just one sack and were rarely in the quarterback’s face. Should that continue, the Buffs should have little trouble scoring points.
JG: What will be the key matchup of this game? CU’s wideouts vs. CSU’s secondary? Montez vs. Stevens? What do you think?
CB: We’ve touched on this a bit, but the key matchup in this game will be CSU’s rushing attack against CU’s front seven. Though I do expect the Rams to win this battle, whether they can is yet to be seen. Last year, the Rams were forced to abandon the run game early and became one-dimensional on offense. If they cannot figure out a way to move the ball effectively on the ground, production through the air will be just as difficult to come by. The Rams must establish themselves on the ground early to open up the passing game, something they failed to accomplish last year.
JG: What’re your expectations for the Rams in 2017?
CB: I expect big things from the Rams in 2017, and reasonably so. It starts with the experience coming back on both sides of the ball. That was absent at the beginning of 2016 and it took the Rams half of the season to find that sweet spot they are currently in. Coach Mike Bobo has his players prepared for a successful year, and it’s something they’re buying into. Their performance against CU will go a long way in deciding if they can win the Mountain West title. A competitive matchup against the Pac-12 South champs will give the Rams confidence knowing they can compete with a nationally recognized team. That confidence will be necessary for the Rams heading into battle against Alabama, and later going into conference play.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo
Contact Rocky Mountain Collegian Sports Editor Colin Barnard at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ColinBarnard_