Stunning Bowl Victory Caps Successful Year Two for McElwain

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With a sea of optimism coming into the season, Colorado State got off to a slow start with disappointing losses to Tulsa and instate rival Colorado; but Jim McElwain reigned in the team and, with the help of Kapri Bibbs, led them to Colorado State's first winning season since 2008.

If you're not a big roller coaster fan, you probably would not enjoy the Rams' 2013 campaign. There was almost a constant change in momentum as the Rams struggled to string together wins when they were most needed. Before the season even began, many onlookers had high expectations for the Rams due to the number of returning players and another year under a new system. But that high was quickly crippled by a sloppy loss to rival Colorado. The Rams more-or-less gave away 14 points on blown coverages in the secondary, and the Rams struggled to produce on offense.

Despite the disappointment, there was still plenty of season to turn things around beginning with a matchup against a young Tulsa team. If possible, the Rams looked even worse in that game losing on a last second field goal. Garrett Grayson had possibly the worst game of his career against a pretty lackluster secondary. Within two weeks of the season starting, a team many thought could make a bowl game, was suddenly at risk of even matching their win total of four from a season before.

The Rams earned a softball victory over FCS foe Cal Poly before heading to Alabama with McElwain's former employer and the number one team in the country. The game went under the loss column, but it was as close to a morale victory as one could ask for. The Rams went into 100,000 seat Bryant-Denny Stadium and played the Crimson Tide close for the better part of three quarters before finally succumbing to superior athleticism. Garrett Grayson played admirably against the toughest defense he would face all season and the defense held AJ McCarron and Co. to their fourth lowest point total of the season. The confidence and lessons the Rams learned in SEC country would pay dividends throughout the season.

In the Ag Day game against UTEP, the Rams would prove they were ready for big boy football with a 59-42 beatdown of the Miners, but more importantly it was the coming out party for Kapri Bibbs. Junior College transfer Bibbs rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns in his first game of major action. From here on out, the 2013 season would be known as the year Kapri Bibbs dominated Colorado State record books before disappearing into the NFL. Once again, morale was high as suddenly the Rams had an identity on offense and a defense that, though vulnerable, seemed to make plays when needed.

But this story would not be complete without another blow to the Rams' resolve. With a bye week before opening Mountain West play and a struggling San Jose State coming off a roadie in Hawaii, the Rams were poised for a big start to the conference season. Alas, they found a way to lose again. Despite holding a 24-17 lead at half, the Rams were outscored 17-3 in the second half while David Fales threw up and down Sonny Lubick Field for 431 yards. Even a breakout game for Grayson (310 yards, 3 TD) could not muster the Rams to a victory and made fans question whether the Rams were truly ready to take the next step.

That quickly turned around with a blowout win against Wyoming in Laramie, a feat Colorado State had not accomplished since 2008. Every aspect of the game seemed to finally come together as the Rams gashed the Cowboys on the ground and through the air while the defense stifled dual threat quarterback Brett Smith. The win marked the first road victory during the Jim McElwain era. The following week, the Rams made the rough road trip to Hawaii and held on in the final seconds to clinch a second road victory and get to .500 on the season for the first time.

That set up a showdown with Mountain Division leader Boise State. In the first two Mountain West match-ups between these teams, the Broncos won by a combined 105-27. This season many though the Rams could pull out a win against a weakened Boise squad; but had been the story much of the season, the Rams secondary could not seem to get it together, allowing Bronco's backup Grant Hedrick 305 yards and five touchdowns. Even with an astounding 626 yards of total offense, the Rams could not dig themselves out of the hole the defense put them in.

With four games left in the season, the Rams needed three to become bowl eligible. And with the help of Kapri Bibbs, they were able to do that. In back-to-back wins against Nevada and New Mexico, Bibbs rushed for 603 yards and 10 touchdowns en route to two of the best offensive performances in Colorado State history. His production in those games landed him screen time on ESPN and began his path towards the NFL draft. After a shutout loss on the road against Utah State, it all came down to the season finale with Air Force. The Rams had not beat the Falcons in seven years and could not seem figure a way to stop the option attack, but the Rams were able to figure it out when needed most.

The Rams came out of the gate hot as they put up 30 points in the first half while holding Air Force scoreless. This time it was Grayson moving the ball for the Rams, picking up chunks of yardage at a time with ease. And once the Rams got near the end zone, it was Bibbs nose for touchdowns that finished off scoring drives. The defense shutdown the Falcons offense, allowing the offense to build a 58-0 lead before the Falcons finally scored two touchdowns in garbage time. It was the largest margin of defeat in the rivalry's history and earned Colorado State a coveted bowl eligibility.

After some drama over whether or not the Rams would get a bowl berth over San Jose State and UNLV, they were picked to go up against Pac-12 surprise Washington State in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. It was a clash between two different worlds. The conservative run-heavy offense of Jim McElwain against the pass happy Air-Raid offense of Cougar coach Mike Leach. Instead of recapping the game, I will just provide you a link to watch it on YouTube because it is a game you really have to watch to appreciate the ups and downs. Hint: The last five minutes or so are great television, unless you are a Cougar fan.

So after a disappointing start to the season, and enough peaks and valleys throughout to make you sick, the final result was a season filled with record breaking performances and memorable moments for a program that has been stuck in inertia for quite some time. It could not have been accomplished without the hard work of 15 seniors who had endured one of the roughest stretches in Colorado State history. Their dedication helped turn the attitude of CSU Football around and set an example of excellence for the Rams to follow in their footsteps. Players like Shaq Barrett and Weston Richburg, who despite coming out of high school with little fanfare, set sterling examples of how to meld character, integrity, and athleticism together to form the definition of a "Student-Athlete."

The last coach of the Rams also went to the New Mexico Bowl early in his tenure and won. He went on to coach three consecutive 3-9 seasons. It has yet to be seen if McElwain can replicate this year's success with a team comprised of mostly his players, but the Jim McElwain era has officially begun. The Rams now have 228 days to prepare for a little revenge against Colorado and get the 2014 season off to the right start.

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