For head coach Jim McElwain and the Colorado State Rams, the Gildan New Mexico Bowl was an exhibition of contradiction. Sloppy, mistake-prone play morphed into moments of steely resolve, timely brilliance and, ultimately, triumph.
In other words, it was a perfect reflection of the Rams' bounce-back season.
Colorado State scored 18 points in the last 2:58 of the game, defeating the Pac-12's Washington St. Cougars 48-45 in an exciting kickoff to college football's bowl season. And though the contest -- like nearly all bowl games -- remains a meaningless exhibition, it was a fitting end for 2013 Rams team that fought through adversity and brought the program back to their winning ways.
Kapri Bibbs' third touchdown of the game brought the Rams withing two points with just :33 left in the fourth quarter, and Donnell Alexander's lunging effort to the pylon for a successful two-point conversion try tied the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Cougars' Teondray Caldwell coughed up the ball, and when the Rams' Jasen Oden Jr. covered it on the Washington State 24-yard line, the outcome seemed a mere formality. As time expired, kicker Jared Roberts booted the game-winnning field goal through from 41-yards out, and the celebration was on in Albuquerque.
There were so many moments when the contest seemed destined to go the other way.
The Rams got off to a disastrous start, looking unprepared and sloppy as they made mistake after mistake on offense, defense and special teams en route to spotting the Cougars with a 28-10 first quarter lead. There was quarterback Garrett Grayson's interception one play after the Ram defense forced a turnover on Washington State's first drive; the blocked punt that gave Wazzu's quarterback Connor Halliday the ball on the Rams' 5-yard line; and the taunting penalty on defensive end Joe Kawoluck that gave the Cougs new life after his third-down sack had pushed them out of field goal range.
The Rams offense, with Bibbs still hobbled by a late-season turf toe injury, gained some traction in the second quarter, but Halliday continued to shred the porous pass defense, finishing the first half with five touchdown passes. Still, McElwain's squad provided viewers with a glimpse of things to come when Roberts converted a 25-yarder as the half expired to bring the Rams within striking distance, still trailing 35-23.
The second half presented the Rams defense with a chance for redemption, and they proved up to the task, giving up only three points in the third quarter. The All-American Bibbs provided the offensive spark, taking a handoff 75 yards up the gut of the Cougars defense to bring Colorado State within one score at 38-30. Still, things looked bleak when receiver Jordon Vaden coughed the ball up with 4:13 left in the period, ending a promising Rams drive after fighting for extra yardage.
When Halliday completed his sixth touchdown of the game with less than 10 minutes to go in regulation, it seemed all but over for the Colorado State contingent in University Stadium, but when the Rams received the ball at their own 28 with 4:17 left in the fourth, the miracle finish began.
Grayson -- who finished the game with 369 yards in the air -- led the offense 72-yards downfield on nine plays, eventually finding Vaden for a redemptive 12-yard score with 2:52 left.
After burning their remaining two timeouts and failing to stop a Washington State third-down conversion, the comeback again seemed destined to fail, but that's when Shaquil Barrett willed the Rams back into the contest. Halliday, attempting to run down the clock on a quarterback keeper, had the ball stripped by the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, which Colorado State recovered to set up a chance at a game-tying drive. But replays showed Halliday's knee down before the ball came out, and the Cougars kept possession.
No matter to Barrett, who ripped the ball out of running back Jeremiah Laufasa's hands on the very next play, picking it out of the air and breathing new life into the team with less than two minutes left in the quarter. Grayson led a methodical offense down to the Cougars' 1-yard line, and Bibbs punched the ball in for the score. The Rams then showed some razzle-dazzle, running a Statue-of-Liberty play on the all-important two-point try. Alexander was initially ruled out short of the goal line, but replays showed him diving forward from 3-yards out with both feet in-bounds and sneaking the ball just inside the pylon to tie the game.
Following Caldwell's fumble, the outcome seemed guided by fate, and Roberts obliged. A team that fought back from ugly early-season defeats and found their identity in late-season victories pulled off an appropriately preposterous comeback. Bibbs, now the program's single-season record holder for rushing yards (1,741) and touchdowns (31), was brilliant. Grayson continued to show his maturation from earlier in the season, looking confident and unflappable through adversity. And Barrett simply imposed his will on the Cougars' final drive. For players who played through the worst of the program's downturn under former coach Steve Fairchild -- like seniors Barrett, center Weston Richburg, tight end Crockett Gillmore and defensive back Shaq Bell -- the victory must have been all the sweeter.
The 2013 Rams, at 8-5, finish with the most wins since 2002. Perhaps moving forward, this game may end up being simply an unexpected bright spot -- like Fairchild's 2008 New Mexico Bowl win -- but if this is the beginning of the Rams' resurgence under McElwain, it may very well turn out to be the one that started it all.