Not many people outside Fort Collins predicted it to start the season, but when Colorado State takes the field Saturday at Hughes Stadium, they will be playing for their first bowl game since 2008, and only their third in the past ten years. In their way is a 2-9 Air Force team whose record is not deceiving. It has been a rough season for Air Force in every possible way, but at least some of that pain can be alleviated by relieving Colorado State of their bowl hopes.
Despite Air Force's struggles this season, in now way should this be a guaranteed win for the Rams. Air Force leads the series all-time, which includes a string of the last seven match-ups. Since Troy Calhoun took over in 2007, the Falcons are 6-0 against the Rams winning by an average of 22 points. Calhoun has the Rams' number, and until Coach McElwain can prove otherwise, should never be counted out in this rivalry game.
Last year's game was more of the same for the Rams. Air Force scored 35 of their 42 in points in the first half and tallied 459 yards rushing on the day to send the Rams back north with a 42-21 loss. Garrett Grayson broke his collarbone on an option run late in the first quarter and was relieved by senior MJ McPeek. McPeek finished with 292 yards and two touchdowns, but also had two key interceptions that killed drives. Air Force quarterback Connor Dietz had 54 yards rushing, and 57 passing on only two completions, while Cody Getz paced the Flacons with 222 yards on only 25 rushes (8.9 per). Colorado State's performance led Coach McElwain to say, "This is as low as I've been." He has a chance this year to make up for that disappointment.
Keys to Victory
Capitalize on the Rams' injury bug
The Rams were mostly able to avoid major injuries throughout the season, but finally had several players go down in last week's game. The biggest name is running back Kapri Bibbs who was leading the country in touchdown runs before injuring his toe. With a bowl game in sight, it is doubtful he will play this week unless absolutely needed. This means Chris Nwoke will be the main back with another player battling injury, Donnell Alexander, as his backup. Behind those two? Eric Williams, a freshman walk-on who only has two carries this season. Bibbs is a dynamic player and without him, the Ram offense will struggle to match his production. If the Falcons can slow down the running game, it will put a lot of pressure on Garrett Grayson.
The defense also lost key players in the Utah State game. Aaron Davis went down on a cheap shot from a defender and is doubtful for Saturday. Davis is second on the team in tackles and third in tackles for lost. Fellow linebacker Cory James, who is second on the team in sacks and tackles for loss, is doubtful as well. With Air Force's option offense, losing linebackers is never a good way to start the game. The Rams likely will play without defensive end Joe Kawulok who was playing better and better the past several weeks. These loses will certainly hurt a defense that gave up 527 yards to New Mexico's option attack two weeks ago.
Threaten with the deep ball
The Rams secondary has been suspect all season, even more so against option offenses. Two weeks ago, they allowed 249 yards through the air against New Mexico, a team that only averages 117 a game. They go into Saturday's game off a solid performance against Utah State, but still rank 117 in passing yards allowed. Every season the Rams seem to give up a big pass play to the Falcons, and every season those plays seem to be the daggers that put the game away. If Air Force can continue to hit big pass plays on defensive miscues, there is a good chance they can earn an eight straight win.
Offensive Player to Watch
(See Above) Romine is the signal caller for the Falcons after just about the entire depth chart in front of him got injured or suspended. He has been fairly effective since taking over midseason, and even compiled very un-Air Force like numbers against New Mexico with 188 yards and three touchdowns. He has five touchdowns on the season to a lone interception and completes about 55% of his passes. His big play potential is not as high as former quarterback Connor Dietz, he has a single pass over 31 yards and is a modest runner, but he is capable enough to make the plays to hurt the Rams defense.
Defensive Player to Watch
The Falcons do not have any standout players on defense, as everyone tends to make contributions here and there, but linebacker Joey Nichol is probably the most effective of the group. He leads the team in tackles for loss and is third in tackles. He is questionable for the game Saturday, but if he plays will be an important piece in stopping the Colorado State offense.
Keys to Victory
Revitalize the run game
After five straight weeks of 200+ yard rushing performances, the Rams offense came back to Earth against Utah State. The Rams only gained 38 yards on the day, and it felt like it was less than that. The offensive line failed to get a push against a physical front seven, and with the injury to Kapri Bibbs slowing him down, Chris Nwoke looked sluggish filling in. With Bibbs and Alexander likely out for this weekend's match-up, it is up to Chris Nwoke, Joe Brown, and walk-on Eric Williams to lead the Rams rushing attack. Nwoke had a 1000+ yard season two years ago, which included a 269 yard and two touchdown performance against Air Force, but has not been able to replicate that production since being replaced by Bibbs and Alexander. With a depleted Air Force defensive line coming to Fort Collins for senior day, it might be one last chance for Nwoke to show how talented he once was. The Rams will need him to produce to help balance the offense and let Garret Grayson do what he is capable of.
Keep receivers in front of them
This has been the problem plaguing the Rams' secondary all season. And it isn't a skill problem, it usually is a matter of not being where they should be. Too often they get caught looking in the backfield trying to stop the run and let receivers get away from them. To their credit, they do step up and make big plays in the run game, but against a team like Air Force, trying to make a big play in the run game will lead to big plays down the field. Just look at the New Mexico game. They made a very modest quarterback in Cole Gaustche look Heisman like as he threw it all over the field. The secondary is certainly capable of locking down the Air Force receivers, they just need to play well mentally.
Offensive Player to Watch
It's been a tough two years for Senior running back Chris Nwoke. After breaking onto the scene his freshman year, the rise of Donnell Alexander last season, and Kapri Bibbs this year, has led to his fall down the depth chart. Even with a bid to a bowl game, it is likely Alexander and Bibbs will be healthy enough to take back the reins in the running game. Nwoke has been an exceptional student-athlete in his years at Colorado State and is a good example of the combination of both responsibilities. He has a 100 yard game this season, so he still has more than enough left in the tank, and it would be special if he could show his past greatness one more time on Sonny Lubick Field.
Defensive Player to Watch
With his fellow linebackers Aaron Davis and Cory James out, it is up to the junior to lead the attack against the option offense. Morgan leads the team in tackles and is tied for ninth nationally at 119. The Rams will certainly need him to step up and provide leadership for the linebackers filling in and prevent the Falcons from getting past the front seven. If they are unable to do that, it will start reeling in the secondary and allow AIr Force to hit the open receivers down field that has plagued the Rams in the past.
Prediction: Colorado State 34 Air Force 28
Currently the spread for this game is around 16 in favor of the Rams. Even with the lack of talent at the Academy, Troy Calhoun still seems to have the Rams figured out. Colorado State may be playing for a bowl game, but the Falcons certainly have nothing to lose and will be hell bent on ruining the Rams bowl hopes. Expect at least one breakdown in the Rams' secondary for a score, and the Falcons should have some ease running the ball given the injuries on the Rams' defense. Garrett Grayson has a chance to prove he is the right man for the job, and I think he will take it with a 350/3 touchdown kind-of-day. Rams win a 'closer-than-most-people-think' game to advance to their first bowl game in five years.