The CSU Rams home opener will be new football head coach Jim McElwain's first game in front of the home crowd at Hughes Stadium. McElwain's enthusiasm and winning demeanor have made him a fan favorite and should have the stadium filled to capacity this Saturday. However, new AD Jack Graham's scheduling has shown a drastic change in tactics from previous AD Kowalczyk's strategy. Last year, the CU Buffs were the third game of the year, due to a scheduling conflict created by traveling to Hawaii and the University of Northern Colorado was CSU's only FCS opponent. CSU blew UNC out at home but struggled against the Buffs in the Rocky Mountain Showdown.
Gone this year is Utep, to which CSU lost in El Paso, a team which recently gave #4 Oklahoma all it could handle. The easy win against UNC and the return game with Utep have been replaced by the #1 ranked FCS national champion Bison from North Dakota State University. After an impressive win against a lackluster CU Buffalo team, the NDSU Bison could easily be considered a trap game as the Bison have beaten 5 FBS teams in the past six years. The Rams need to make sure they take care of business against a team they must be able to beat, in order to avoid a loss to an FCS team, which would kill any potential at a ranking.
Last weekend, in the second quarter, the CSU Rams decided to go for it on fourth down on their own side of the 50 yard line. This decision almost proved disastrous as the Rams gave the Colorado Buffaloes a short field to work with and went down 14 - 3 at halftime. The new coach seemed to have learned from that mistake and used the adversity to inspire his team. The CSU team that emerged from the tunnel after half time was not the same as the one that went into the tunnel before the half. The Rams' defense, one that was thought to be depleted and lacking in depth, took the Buffs out of their game and the Rams' momentum was palpable throughout Mile High Stadium. This weekend, the Rams will have to show up with the same enthusiasm and show the same effort for an entire 60 minutes, because the Bison have quite a bit more will, determination and playing ability than the Buffaloes from Boulder.
Garrett Grayson (sophomore) was 14 out of 21 for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns. The problems for the Rams stemmed from the Buffaloes getting to Grayson and either forcing his hand or putting him on the turf. With Chris Nwoke (junior) out with an ankle injury, the job of helping Grayson in the backfield falls to Donnell Alexander, a freshman who proved every bit as exciting as Nwoke and who rushed for 66 yards on eight carries last week to lead the Rams once Nwoke left the game. The leading receiver for the Rams last weekend was freshman Joe Hansley, who led the Rams with 40 yards and a touchdown.
Senior Dominique Vinson had the other touchdown and the other 9 points were scored by MWC Special Teams player of the week Jared Roberts, who went 3 for 3 last week but had an extra point blocked. The Rams will be returning everyone this weekend except for Nwoke and hope to put significant pressure on the Bison defense. Look for more receivers and tight ends to get into the game, such as 6' 6" junior Crockett Gillmore. The offensive line, anchored by Rimington Trophy candidate Weston Richburg, will need to play four solid quarters of football to protect Grayson from the Bison pass rush. Add to this the Ray Guy candidate punter Pete Kontodiakos (senior) and the Rams can play the field position game quite well.
The NDSU Bison have come into the news recently due to their troubles with voter fraud, stemming from jobs held by NDSU players in which they were paid $9 an hour to garner signatures for medical marijuana petitions. It seems the Bison players forged some signatures instead of going out to get all of them. 4 of the 8 players sighted in the Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's indictment are starters for the Bison, but none will be suspended for the Rams' game this weekend. Junior quarterback Brock Jensen has plenty of experience and will not be rattled by the Rams' defense.
Junior RB Sam Ojuri, under suspicion of driving without a license after pleading guilty to an alcohol related offense, had 11 TD and 1105 yards last year and could be a real threat to the Rams' defense if the Bison succeed in establishing their ground game. Sophomore Zach Vraa is the likely main threat at receiver, along with junior Ryan Smith, as the Bison 1000 yard receiver Warren Holloway graduated after last season and there are no senior receivers at either the WR or TE position.
The NDSU Bison's coached Craig Bohl is a product of the Tom Osbourne success at Nebraska and has worked to install a Husker type of defense and a blackshirt mentality for the Bison. The former NU defensive coordinator has the Bison playing tough, physical defense, defeating Robert Morris 52 - 0 last weekend allowing only 88 yards of total offense. Junior Ryan Drevlow, sophomore Carlton Littlejohn, linebackers Grant Olson (junior) and Travis Beck (sophomore) spark a defense that caused four turnovers, three fumbles and an interception, and kept the RMU Colonials from getting anything going on offense last weekend.
The Ram defense, on the other hand, was one of the bigger question marks last year. This year's team, with linebackers #56 Shaquil Barrett (junior), #43 James Skelton (senior) and #31 freshman Cory James, who was the MW Defensive Player of the Week, are playing at a much higher level. The CSU defense held the CU Buffaloes to only 58 yards rushing last week. The key to the Rams' success on defense was the pressure brought in to help out the lack of push by the defensive line. The Rams were able to blitz due to solid coverage by players such as Shaq Bell. McElwain and his staff put constant pressure on Jordan Webb and there was an increase in the intensity from the defense as a whole, as there were almost always multiple Rams in on tackles.
The Rams do not have a physical advantage over the Bison, as one might expect in an FBS vs. FCS matchup. The Bison match up quite well in terms of size, speed and ability. That is one of the head scratchers about CSU scheduling a difficult FCS team in a rebuilding year. Graham could have quite easily picked UNC again and handed his coach an easy win, for the Rams to go 2-0 early, with its only BCS opponent, CU, securely in the bag. The Rams should be heavily favored at home against an FCS opponent, yet that is not the case. The Rams' fans are hoping for a 2-0 start before beginning play against the soon to be newest members of the Mountain West conference, San Jose State on Sept. 15th in San Jose, CA and USU at home on September 22nd.
The NDSU fans are confident of a close game against the CSU Rams. One of these two teams will drop to .500 and the other will be undefeated after Saturday. If the Rams can stay on track, it will make the Mountain West a more interesting place to be and show that the MW teams deserve recognition on a larger scale. Beating CU last week brought the Rams from 94th to 68th in the NCAA College Football Rankings. What can a win against the Bison do?