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2018 Rocky Mountain Showdown Preview: Colorado Buffaloes vs. Colorado State Rams

Buffs looking to bring the Centennial Cup back to Boulder for a fourth straight year

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing end to last season, the Colorado Buffaloes (2017: 5-7, 2-7 Pac-12) see opportunities in playing the role of an underdog going into 2018. Mike MacIntyre’s sixth season in Boulder starts with a battle in the Rocky Mountain Showdown facing in-state rivals the Colorado State Rams (2017: 7-6, 5-3, MWC). This is a matchup that has been dominated by the Buffs in recent years as they have hed the Rams to single digits in the past two meetings. Last year, the Buffs ran over the Rams on the way to a 17-3 victory behind Phillip Lindsay’s 140 yards on 19 carries on the ground, with both teams holding each other scoreless in the second half in what was supposed to be a high-scoring affair.

CSU coach Mike Bobo is looking for his first win over Colorado since taking over in Fort Collins before the 2015 season. He has spent time away from the program this offseason dealing with health issues related to numbness in his feet and downplayed his condition as being a factor to the Rams opening season loss to Hawaii last Saturday night. “That’s an easy excuse. It is what it is. I was out, it was unfortunate. There’s no opportune time to have that happen,” Bobo said after the game to the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Colorado State finished their 2017 campaign coasting to a 7-6 record by losing four of their final five games including a 31-28 loss to Marshall in the New Mexico Bowl. It was the third straight season the Rams posted an identical record, being one win above bowl eligibility. Bobo is starting over this season with a new look offense built around K.J. Carta Samuels as the Rams starting quarterback. The Washington graduate transfer has a ton of talent surrounding him with Preston Williams, Warren Jackson and Olabisi Johnson showing to be a triple receiving threat early in the season. Many question what this Rams offense is capable of after losing eight starters from last season, most notably quarterback Nick Stevens, wide receiver Michael Gallup and running back Dalyn Dawkins.

As for the opposite side of the ball, what could be the Achilles heel for the Rams defense this season is inexperience with four underclassmen (two freshmen, two sophomores) in the starting rotation. CSU gave up 617 yards of total offense to Hawaii with 418 passing yards and five total TD’s for Warriors QB Cole McDonald. The loss marked the third time a CSU defense has given up over 600 yards of total offense to an opponent, and the second time an opposing quarterback has eclipsed 400 yards passing in the Mike Bobo era.

The heart and soul of new look 4-3 defense for the Rams features a strong group of linebackers. Tre Thomas, Josh Watson and Max McDonald are the second line of defense behind the bookends of Emmanuel Jones and Richard King, and along side defensive tackles Devin Phillips and Ellison Hubbard. The front seven will try to force CU quarterback Steven Montez into using his feet more than his arm. Given Hawaii QB Cole McDonald’s success as a dual-threat against the Rams defense, expect Montez to see similar avenues when reviewing the game film this week.

That’s where the play of CSU’s secondary becomes a factor. Rice graduate transfer V.J. Banks and true freshman Rashad Ajayai have the task of holding up man-to-man coverage against two of CU’s receivers in a four-wide receiver set — Juwann Winfree, Laviska Shenault, Kabion Ento and Jay MacIntyre would be the receivers most likely to see the field together. CSU safeties Jordan Fogal and Jamal Hicks will be the two busiest players on Friday night racking up many tackles in the process.

On the other side of the matchup, Montez and the Buffs deep group of receivers have big expectations under Darrin Chiaverini’s proto-Texas Tech offense. The Buffs also have Virginia Tech graduate transfer Travon McMillian steps into the role left by Phillip Lindsay. He’s running behind the line of Josh Kaiser, Brett Tonz, Colby Pursell, Tim Lynott and Aaron Haigler. CU’s offense is built for speed and should put up points this season.

Colorado defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot comes into his second year since taking over for Jim Leavitt preaching the same 3-4 hybrid scheme that change the landscape in Boulder. Unproven and untested talent is scattered among the Buffs roster, but no more so than on the defense. The linebackers are improved with Rick Gamboa, Nate Landman and Akil Jones on the inside, and Drew Lewis, Jacob Callier and Carson Wells on the outside. Top-ranked JUCO transfer Davion Taylor holds down the starting Buff Backer position along with the potential of backup Kyle Trego splitting time at safety.

As for Buffs defensive front, Jaiver Edwards returns as the monster in the middle with Chris Mulumba on the right side and freshman Israel Antwine making his first career start on the left. JUCO transfer Mustafa Johnson is a versatile piece of in Eliot’s defense and could play any position on the line for first-year coach Kwahn Drake. It was a good spring and fall camp overall for CU’s entire defensive line. The key will be the combo of Antwine, Mulumba and Johnson being able to exploit the inexperienced left side of CSU’s offensive line in order in disrupt Carta-Samuels from developing a rhythm.

Nobody in the Buffs secondary will replace the production value of Isaiah Oliver, but they can still be a formiddle bunch. The pair of Trey Udoffia and Dante Wigley return with starting experience as the top two corners on the latest depth chart. Behind them are the long-limbed JUCO transfer Delrick Abrams, freak athlete Chris Miller and pesky slot corner Ronnie Blackmon. All of them have the ability to perform at a high level as the next class of ShaDon Brown’s ‘DB-U’. Udoffia and Wigley are backed by veteran safeties Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington.

How Colorado’s secondary reacts against the routes of Rams receivers Olabisi Johnson, Warren Jackson and Preston Williams could be the most important factor in this matchup. Johnson was a go-to option last year, but Jackson and Williams have the potential to emerge as reliable options in 2018. Jackson’s stature makes him intimidating to cover at 6’6” and 225 pounds, especially with Carta-Samuels’ ability to hit him in stride with a near six-inch height advantage over both Udoffia and Wigley.

News and Notes

From the desk of Dave Plati:

“The Buffaloes will play on three Friday nights this fall, once at home (against UCLA on Sept. 28), once on the road (at Arizona on Nov. 2) and once at a neutral site (the season opener on Aug. 31 against Colorado State in Denver). It will mark the first time in 129 seasons that the Buffaloes will play three regular season games on a Friday; it’s just the second time the Buffs will have as many as three non-Saturday games in the same regular season as well: in 2009, the Buffs play two on a Thursday, two on a Friday and one on a Sunday.”

Colorado meets Colorado State in Denver, Colo. for the 90th edition of the Rocky Mountain Showdown at 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Aug. 31. CU is the visiting team wearing white jerseys, white pants with gold helmets. All green with traditional helmets for CSU as the home team. Colorado holds a 65-22-2 all-time series advantage having won the past three games. A fourth consecutive win would be the longest streak for the Buffs in the past twenty years.

TV: CBS Sports Network (Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor and analyst John Schriffen) The 34th time over the last 35 seasons that a CU season opener will be on some kind of local, regional or national television.

Radio: 850 KOA (Mark Johnson and Gary Barnett)

Tickets: CUBuffs.com $35-$110

Weather forecast: 78° Mostly cloudy with a slight of rain at kickoff

Vegas odds: Colorado -7.5