Gameday is finally here. College football has begun again and Buff fans can't wait to taste Ram blood in the first game. Before the Buffaloes take the field for the first time in 2014, let's take a look at our neighbors up north, the CSU Rams.
For CSU on offense, it all starts at the QB position. Garret Grayson, a 5th year senior, put up some nice numbers last year in an admittedly cupcake schedule. In the games against the three top defensive teams on his schedule (Bama, Boise, and Utah State, according to Def S&P), his averages were 257 yds, 1/3 of a touchdown, 1 interception and a 57.3% completion percentage per game. Those numbers don't exactly scream "Heisman candidate" to anyone, but then again, it's a small sample size. He will be the one to make this offense go as the only member of the backfield who has taken significant snaps in a college game. He has a cannon for an arm, and he can make plays with his feet. He is a traditional gunslinger and that has his drawbacks too. He often is overconfident in his ability, throwing in windows that shut before the ball gets there and generally making bad decisions. This often puts a lot of pressure on the RB's and OL to be a consistent source of third downs and yards. Fortunately for the Rams last year, Kapri Bibbs and a senior-laden offensive lines were able to put up some ridiculous numbers. This year may be a different story.
On the most recent depth chart, a converted safety (Jason Oden) is the number one running back after the top three left the program (Bibbs, Nwoke, and Alexander). Oden, based on the spring game, has a good cutback and the required toughness to run inside. However, I doubt that he lacks the explosiveness to do any serious damage against CU, a team (finally) filled with good athletes, albeit unproven ones. Dee Hart, a ballyhooed 5* transfer from Alabama, backs up Oden and looks to get plenty of play. He, as well as Treyous Jarrells (a JUCO backup), looks to be more of the scatback type, quick and shifty. How much quick and shifty Hart has left has yet to be discovered after two knee surgeries seem to take out some explosiveness. Jarrells, the previously mentioned transfer, is tiny but fast. In my opinion, none of these backs are someone to gameplan against. Grayson is the engine that runs this offense, and if he stalls, consider the CSU offense totaled (nice car metaphor, Jack).
An even bigger question mark for this game is their offensive line. This line is replacing four departed starters, including second round pick Weston Richburg at center. Now, going into the first game of the season, they have an almost entirely new offensive line and a pretty green one at that. Ty Sambrailo is a burgeoning NFL prospect at LT, and as a 5th year senior, he is the anchor of this O-line. Then going left to right, Mason Myers is a senior at guard, and a starter who I would consider average. Jake Bennett, a redshirt freshman, starts at C, stepping into shoes that almost no one could fill. I expect Tupou to throw him around on Friday. Next, at RG, Fred Zerblis took that starting spot as a sophmore. Finally, at RT, the biggest story out of CSU's camp this week was the football retirement of Mason Hathaway, who was slated to start for the RMS. We wish him all the best in whatever he chooses to do, as that is a tough decision for anyone. He was slated to start after Jordan Finley injured himself as well, leaving just Sam Carlson to start for this game. Obviously, a third-stringer starting isn't ideal for CSU, but CU's defensive ends will have to prove that they can exploit this matchup. The offensive line will have to prove that they can partially overcome the huge losses they've incurred, but as of right now, the big boys up front for the Rams are in trouble.
Let's talk about the receivers for CSU, a decidedly happier topic that their O-line. This is one of two positions that CSU has plus depth and top-end talent, the second being LB's. The budding MWC star Rashard Higgins leads the group, followed by Charles Lovett, Joe Hansley and Xavier Williams. Deionte Gaines, the true freshman, shows great playmaking ability and is their starting KR. I would love Lovett and Higgins on CU, and I think Lovett would start in the slot for the Buffaloes. Higgins is an explosive threat, and if he improves his hands, watch out. Lovett, meanwhile, is a fantastic route runner and is as solid as they come. Hansley scored on the imfamous punt return last year and could slither into the end zone again. This receiving corps for CSU has the potential to be good now and great later, and they are a group to watch on Friday. Also included in this group, in my opinion, is Kivon Cartwright. While the TE depth behind him is almost all blocking JUCO transfers, Kivon is a serious threat and if he is in fact injured for this game CU will be very grateful. He can stretch the field as a giant slot receiver and also move the chains as in-line tight end. He will be hampered by a foot injury if he does play, somewhat limiting his effectiveness.
It all starts up front for the Rams as the defensive line is the most unproven unit for them on that side of the ball, but not its worst (looking at you, secondary). This group graduates three starters, but that's a bit of a misnomer, as the rotation was pretty constant throughout the year. There are no designated stars in this group, and as far as I can see, no one with the potential to be one. They have some nice size inside with Terry Jackson and LaRyan King, with King manning the NT spot. Joe Kawulok at end has some nice moves and I'm hearing he is all of 260 and 6'6. At the LB/DE spot that Shaquil Barrett took last year is SteveO Michel, who, no offense is to SteveO, is obviously a big step down and not nearly as big of a worry. None of these guys are world beaters, as is the case with the people behind them, but they undoubtedly have some nice size and could threaten CU a bit, but I'm not expecting much.
Moving to the linebackers. This is the best unit on the team for CSU, and I don't think it's close. Cory James, Max Morgan, and Aaron Davis have all proved themselves as starters, with Morgan the returning tackles leader and James as the sackmaster behind Barrett, The entire group of starters has experience, talent, and intelligence, making this a very dangerous group. Behind them is no one to mention as of right now, but there are some pieces back there. This unit has the ability to impact the RMS a significant amount, and most of them would start for CU, something I could not say for most of the positions. Watch out for these Rams on Friday, they'll be all over the field.
The secondary situation for CSU is an interesting one. They return a lot of starting experience and depth, but you may not want experience after the year they had last year. They were 125th in passing yards allowed last year, and that was in the MWC. They return DeAndre Elliot and Bernard Blake at the CB positions, both tall corners that got abused by CU last year. Maybe another year of experience will help them this year. A key backup for them, Preston Hodges, has been getting rave reviews out of camp and I wouldn't be surprised if he overtakes a starting spot during the year. These CB's have the physical attributes to be successful, but they will have to prove they are capable of merely slowing down every offense they face this year. At the safety position, it is almost the same story. There is experience and depth all around, but not necessarily good experience or depth. Trent Matthews is a legit NFL prospect at FS, and he should do pretty well out there, but the other safety spot is still in trouble. They switched starters during camp, going from Kevin Pierre-Louis to Nick Januska. It's safe to say that whoever ends back there next to Matthews for the Rams is going to need some help. This secondary is experienced and deep, but I wouldn't say it's talented or close to good enough to stop Sefo and Co. on Friday.
I asked Kyle McCall, of Buff Stampede and GoldAndGreenNews fame, about which players to watch on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. This is what he had to say:
Ralphie and Cam get ready, the time is finally here. After weeks and weeks of smack talk on both sides and predictions of blowouts from the two fan bases, we get to watch Colorado and Colorado State actually play football. I’ve said that the Buffs will be victorious and I’ll stick with that, but all signs in the Fort point to it being a close game. Vegas has tabbed it a three-point spread in CU’s favor, which sounds about right, maybe a little low. I’d say CU by six or seven. If I were a gambling man, I’d put money on the over: Rocky Mountain Shootout.
Jack asked for a little perspective on the Rams, so here it goes. Please do not flame us for these thoughts. On second thought, go ahead and flame us in the comments below.
Colorado State is full of confidence coming off a bowl victory over Washington State last season. Buffs fans will likely laugh at that, but it’s true. It really is true, stop laughing. After watching the Rams’ progression over the course of camp and the build up during game week, I believe CSU is ready for the Showdown. Say what you will about Jim McElwain, but the man can coach. His rhetoric rubs some Buffs fans the wrong way and that’s understandable, but the guy knows what he’s doing. Alabama, NFL, yada, yada. He’ll have CSU ready for a battle.
The major question surrounding the Rams is in regard to the offensive line. CSU lost right tackle Mason Hathaway to an injury and Westron Richburg now plays for the New York Giants in the NFL. Left tackle Ty Sambrailo is a legit prospect for the pro game, but he can’t do it alone. CSU will turn to the likes of Fred Zerblis, Jake Bennett and others to push forward, literally. It’ll be interesting to see how the Rams fare in the trenches.
If CSU can’t find a way to run the ball with Jasen Oden, Dee Hart and others, they’ll let Garrett Grayson fire away. Much has been made about Grayson’s time at the Manning Passing Academy and his development heading into the RMS. I’ve seen the numbers on his performances last year and against CU, but barring another injury to his collarbone, the CSU signal-caller is in line for a big senior season. He has weapons in Rashard "Hollywood" Higgins, Charles Lovett, Joe Hansley, Xavier Williams and others.
Some of you will be like ‘hey, Kyle, CSU’s receivers wouldn’t do squat in the Pac-12.’ Luckily for the Rams they don’t play in the Pac-12. Talent wise, I don’t see a huge gap between the CSU and CU receivers, but that’s a matter of opinion. CU’s Shay Fields and CSU’s Deionte Gaines are young guys I hope get a lot of snaps tomorrow.
It doesn’t look like CSU standout tight end Kivon Cartwright will be able to play, or maybe the Rams really are sandbagging on that front. CSU has the utmost confidence in Grayson and I expect they’ll let him sling it. CU boasts talented defensive backs and there will be matchups galore. I’m pumped.
On the other side of the ball, CSU fields an upperclassmen-rich defense led by the linebacking corps of Max Morgan, Cory James and Aaron Davis. The hogs in front of those three are fairly untested, but I think they’ll hold their own against the CU offensive line.
The major problem for the Rams’ defense in 2013 was giving up the big play (see Paul Richardson, 2013 RMS). Richardson isn’t around, which should help a little bit. The Rams have focused on eliminating players running wide open past the secondary through communication and other adjustments. Junior college transfer defensive back Preston Hodges is going to play quite a bit for CSU. CSU coaches and players have been raving about Hodges all camp and I expect he’ll have a strong game.
The Rams emphasized speed and play-making ability with the 2014 recruiting class. I think we'll see an improvement on special teams for CSU after they brought in a solid crop of newcomers.
In my eyes this game is a rivalry and I hope it continues in the future either in Denver or by moving back to campus. I didn’t attend either school and have only lived in this great state for four years. It’s fun to be able to see both teams at the same time. I really don’t care who wins, just hope that it’s a good game with lots of scoring. Like I said, the over looks juicy. Try not to drink too much during the tailgate, you don’t want to pass out and miss this one. It should be a good game.
Quick Hitter Predictions
CU's Oline vs. CSU's Dline- Advantage: CU. If there's one place CU really got better over this offseason, it's the offensive line. Jeromey Irwin is a clear upgrade and Shane Callahan provides nice depth. CSU, however, lost their biggest playmaker in Barrett and isn't spectacular anywhere else on this front.
CSU's Oline vs. CU's Dline- Advantage: Slightly CU. The middle of the line of scrimmage will be dominated by the Buffs whenever CSU has the ball. Tupou and Solis vs. underclassmen is just unfair and should be treated as such. However, around the edges, it gets a little dicey. I have serious doubts about the playmaking abilities of these DE's, and losing Henington didn't help. Sambrailo wins his matchups and the RT side is a push for me.
CU's QB vs. CSU's DB's- Advantage: CU. Sefo Liufau is a bit of a wildcard, as he's never played CSU before. He showed good progression throughout last year, and while he is only a sophmore, he is more poised than any QB we have had in a long time. I think he exploits the short passing game for days against this CSU secondary, who, in remembering the abuse laid on them last year, back up 10 yards every play. Liufau knows what to do.
CSU's QB vs. CU's DB's- Advantage: Push. This is undoubtedly CU's best unit, and Grayson is the most exciting player on offense for the Rams. He struggles against good secondaries (see above), and CU has a damn good secondary. However, Grayson will be motivated, experienced, and let loose. I think he sees some success, but not enough to break open the game.
CU's Skill Players (WR, TE, RB) vs. CSU's Back 7 (LB's and DB's)- Advantage: CSU. Until CU has an established playmaker next to Spruce and maybe Adkins, the advantage goes to CSU. Their linebackers are tenacious and talented, and should be able to limit the tight ends in the passing game, as well as keep the runs to just the second level. The Buffaloes' wide receiver will need to CONSISTENTLY win the matchups on the edges for the offense to move. That remains to be seen with this young group.
CSU's Skill Players vs. CU's Back 7- Advantage: Slightly CU. The wildcard in this matchup is Kivon Cartwright. If he plays, this whole dynamic shifts. For the time being, I'll assume he'll be a greatly diminished factor. CU's linebackers can fly around the field, even if they are a bit undersized, and should be able to cover the middle level of the defense pretty well. I doubt CSU's unproven RB's will be able to do anything past Tupou and friends, much less Gillam. As with CU's skill players, the key matchup is on the outside. If CU's talented secondary can hold Higgins, Lovett and Hansley, that's ballgame. If they allow them to slip, well, the RMS just got more interesting.
This game will be closer than many Buff faithful hope it will be. However, looking over all the matchups, CU looks well-equipped to handle anything CSU throws at them. I think that CU plays this game smart, and after Powell and Adkins TD runs in the first half, they play smart and limit mistakes. As CU walks off the field after a 24-14 victory, it won't be as glorious as last year's win, and it won't be sexy. But they will walk off with a good feeling in their chests, and CU fans can feel good that they have the right man to lead them back to glory.