Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, August 30, 2012

2012 Rocky Mountain Showdown Preview

For reasons unknown, the yearly series of questionable profit continues this weekend.  Reality and logic be damned, we're headed back to Invesco Sports Authority Field to face the CSU Rams.  You can find my last two previews in this series here and here.

In case you missed it, star wide-out Paul Richardson, who had previously hoped to return this year from an off-season ACL tear, will shut it down and redshirt this fall.  Many people, including Richardson himself, had openly speculated that he could return as early as the Pac-12 opener at Washington State, but now the Buffs will officially be without the speedy wide receiver's services until the start of next season.

I was not completely surprised by this announcement.  During his radio show Tuesday, Coach Embree alluded to the fact that P-Rich had an upcoming announcement.  Considering that he was already ruled out of the first two games, and that coaches would never confirm his playing status this far out from games later in the season, the only logical explanation was that he was announcing a redshirt.
Paul is obviously devastated, but it's for the best.  From: the BDC
It's probably for the best, as the kid has a very bright playing future, and should make sure he's 100% healthy before risking re-injury.  I know he wants to play, but sometimes you need to be pragmatic.  The notion of him coming back mid-season always struck me as unnecessarily risky, anyway.

As it pertains to game-planning for this weekend, coaches have known since spring ball that P-Rich would be unavailable for the CSU game, so it's business as planned. 


The offseason is over!  Actual sports are about to actually happen!

We've been in the dark for weeks as the team slogged through fall practice behind a media blackout.  Now, there's no hiding from the spotlight.  I just hope they got their shit together while the doors were closed.

Kickoff of the 84th Rocky Mountain Showdown is set for for 2pm Saturday afternoon.  For those of you unable/unwilling to make the trek to Denver, coverage can be seen on FX (with Joel Klatt!), or heard on 850 KOA (with Mark Johnson!).

Click below for the preview...

When last we met -

It's funny to look back at the box score from the 83rd RMS, and notice that the Rams scored first.  It didn't do CSU much good as the Buffs grabbed two quick scores before halftime to squeeze out a lead they would never relinquish.  In total, CU would reel off 21 straight points before dueling scores in the 4th quarter got the final line to 28-14.  The final scoring drive for the Buffs, a masterful 16-play, 10-minute epic, sealed the deal, and the Buffs4Life coaching staff had their first win.
Happy times.  From: the BDC
The final margin may have been only 14 points, but I don't particularly remember the game being that close. Even the stat sheet looks lopsided.  CSU couldn't even crack 250 yards of offense, and the Ram defense allowed Speedy Stewart (101 yards running, 93 receiving) and Tyler Hansen (216 yards, 2 TDs passing, 2 TDs rushing) to have big days.

Even with CU's offensive stars having stellar performances, the game had the typical RMS slog-feel going for it.  Attendance was unsurprisingly poor, the assembled crowd was palpably apathetic, and the whole affair felt empty.

Hatin' on the RMS -

Last year's affair was so putrid that it drove Woody Paige to note:

This game, unfortunately, doesn't belong in Denver. It is badly promoted and poorly attended. Colorado State alumni talk a good game, but they don't show up at games. And people in Denver who didn't go to either school have little interest. Nobody could even work up a good "Tee-Bow" chant Saturday.

CU athletic director Mike Bohn said afterward he wouldn't have signed a long-term deal for the game in Denver "if I had known we were going to the Pac-12."

The game wasn't an intrastate rivalry experience. [...] According to Embree, "I don't think it was as intense as it needed to be." - link

Anyone with a pulse and a sense of honesty can tell the RMS is tired and antiquated.  The people who run the show don't even put in the effort to make it seem like the grand stage anymore (which is the whole justification behind the event being held in Denver).  It doesn't elevate football in the State of Colorado, it depresses it.  It's an embarrassment, and it needs to end.
Does this look big-time to you? -link
The "spectacle" has been crippled by poor attendance over the past few years.  Since returning to the Mile High City in 2010, the RMS has averaged a paltry 59k tickets sold per contest, but many estimates have actual butts-in-seats attendance to be in the 40-45k range per game.  The problem hasn't been with BuffNation - we support our team.  Between a base of 23k+ season ticket holders and the ~10k students who travel to Denver, BuffNation can easily cover the bulk of the allotment.  Rather, it's been the CSU fanbase which doesn't care enough to support their own team.

This year will be no different:

Damn, that fanbase is a sorry sack of shit.  I know they're a glorified University of Phoenix Online now, but they could at least shell out some cash and make the 1-hour drive to watch their bowl game.

I'm sorry, to keep harping on this issue, but I'm just so goram tired with everything this game represents. I will simply re-state that this series is pointless, and needs to end.  If we can't end the series in its entirety, then it at least needs to move back onto campus.  If we can't even manage that, then we need FEMA to step in and get us some damn disaster relief, 'cause I'm sick of looking at all of those empty seats.

That's the last I'll say on the topic, I swear.  Time to move on...

Coaching -

The biggest storyline from CSU camp this year is the new blood running the program.  The Fairchild era run its course, and a change was sorely needed.  The CSU administration wasted no time, and Jim McElwain, formerly the offensive coordinator at Alabama, was tabbed to be the new head Ram shortly after the end of the 2011 season.  The assembled hordes in FoCo rejoiced, thinking that just the merest association with a real football program would boost the floundering program's fortunes.  Repeatedly over the past few months, I've heard Ram backers talking up McElwain's championship caliber, and how he "lead" the Crimson Tide" to two national championships.

What say you McKayla?

Exactly, not impressed.  Of all the coaches on that 'Bama staff, McElwain probably had the least to do with their ultimate success.  Defense rules the roost in Saban-land, the offense is just there to buy time for the punter to warm up his leg.  McElwain wasn't even relied upon as a recruiter in Tuscaloosa, that task left to more trusted assistants.

The irony is, at one point in time he was a serious candidate for the Buffs head coaching gig.  Mike Bohn and crew interviewed McElwain the year before his hire in FoCo, but eventually kept him at arms length.  Two years ago, in the midst of the coaching search, I commented about McElwain "I get the gut feeling that he is just piggybacking on the overall program's success.  He's not worth the risk that he's another Hawk-esque flash in the pan."  Words as true today as when they were written.
That smile will fade quickly...
CU stayed away partially because he wasn't from "the family," but also because, in the wake of the Hawk era, we realized that there's more to winning than wearing a visor.  We knew we needed a man, possibly over 40 years in age, who was much more than the sum of his title.  We needed more than a paper bag with a whistle.

CSU just said "fuck it, just give me the paper bag."

Ephemera -

One ugly legacy of the Steve Fairchild era that has carried over into the first few months of McElwain's tenure is the complete lack of discipline many of the Rams have away from the field.  Before last year's game I noted the Ram penchant for getting suspended, ruled ineligible, arrested, and demoted.  That trend continued this offseason as well, as a trio of Rams (allegedly) decided that it's cool to beat the shit out of a fellow student while hiding pot and steroids in their rooms.  Expulsions quickly followed (For their part, the players blame the media.  It's always the damn media's fault).  Add to that sorry episode the usual list of transfers (here, here, here and here), and injuries (also, but I expect him to play), and little brother seems utterly incapable of bringing their full compliment of talent to the table.
Not cool.
I'd be happy to see this trend ended.  It's not good for any program to continually produce stories like this.  Get to it, McElwain.

Offense & Defense - 

Let's be honest, the Rams were not a good team last year. They wound up in the bottom 3rd of the Mountain West for almost every major statistical category.  Offense, defense, special teams... you name it, they needed to go in a new direction.  There was a football reason Coach Fairchild was fired, afterall....

Offensively, they're a little bit of an enigma.  Coach McElwain famously utilized a ponderous pro-style at Alabama, but Offensive Coordinator Dave Baldwin ran the spread at Utah St.  As a result of the combo, while they'll officially be running the pro-style Saturday, I'd bet on more than a few spread tendencies peeking out from around the edges.  As Coach Embree noted this week, "We're probably going to have to make adjustments on game day, as for what Colorado State does.  You have to have a lot of flexibility in your game plans. It's definitely a challenge. But you have to just be ready to adapt and go play."

Adjustments to the new regime have been slow, especially on the offensive line.  In the spring game, the remaining Ram defenders were able to get to the QB 27 times, making me believe that the O-line was either drunk, high, or both.  The O-line swears they're better, but the proof is in the stats.  It simply takes a long time to accept a new schematic input, and Ram QBs will be paying for it all season.  That line will be asked to make up for their struggles in pass-protect by paving the way for the running game of Chris Nwoke.  Given that CSU lacks much dynamism on the edge, it's more of an imperative, than a stylistic choice.
The Ram 'O' has no choice but to rely on Nwoke.
On defense, they're moving to the dreaded 3-4 scheme that CU scrapped after last year mostly to take advantage of a purported solid corps of linebackers.  I'd expect the breakdowns inherent with change could lead to some big holes here as well.

The biggest problem on defense for CSU, however, is that the heart was ripped out of this unit over the offseason. Much of their returning talent left the program before they even made it to fall ball. Regardless of the reasons behind their departures, the loss of presumed starters Nordly Capi, C.J. James, Mike Orakpo, Colton Paulhus, and Drew Reilly amounts to the loss of 184 tackles (23 for loss) and 15 sacks from the '11 team, all but decimating their front-seven. That's a gutting of Goodell-ian proportions. I'll bet that it takes the whole defense a while to figure out how to cover up that talent drain.

Star Players - 

I already talked about the importance of shutting down running back Chris Nwoke on Thursday.  Another key will be getting to sophomore starting QB Garrett Grayson.  Gone are the days of mythic 4-star Pistol Pete Thomas, and Grayson struggled down the stretch last year when he was handed the reigns of the program.  Starting the final three games of the season, he went for 172 yards per game on 60% passing, with a 2-5 TD-to-INT ratio.  Gotta give the Rams some credit here, at least they knew who their QB was going into fall camp.
... like a deer in headlights...
One interesting piece for the Rams 'O' is junior TE Crockett Gilmore.  The 6-6, 245lbs Texan earned 2nd team All-MWC honors last year, and will be Grayson's primary safety valve.  He'll need him too, as there's not much at wide-out up in the Fort.

On defense, those that have remained with the program are lead by junior Shaquil Barrett.  As a LB last year, he lead the Rams with 99 tackles.  They're moving him to D-end this season, however, where bodies are sorely needed.  How quickly he transitions will be key.  Also look out for senior performers James Skelton (LB) and Momo Thomas (CB).
Barrett is one of few defensive stars remaining.

Further Ephemera - 

Fuck Bradlee Van Pelt.

Damn, what a douche.  On the 10-year anniversary of Van Pelt spiking the ball in Sneed's face, I just want to remind everyone that he can eat a bag of dicks.

Prediction -

If the Buffs have any hope of playing in a bowl game this season, they must win this game.  CU hasn't made a bowl without a win over CSU since '02, and finding six wins without counting this game is a little tough.  Luckily for the team, I think they should be able to keep that bowlin' dream alive into week two.

I think the matchup of the inexperienced CU offense against the gutted Ram defense is a wash.  I'm also unconcerned about the inexperience on the defense's fringe; the Ram passing game just isn't explosive enough to force the young DB's into fatal mistakes.

That leaves it up to the veteran core of the team, the Buff defense, to hold against the ground-heavy CSU offense.  If the front-seven can find a way to control Nwoke, and the offense doesn't start coughing up the ball for no reason, then CU should cruise.  If the choice is between Cabral's LB's stopping or not stopping an opponents star runner, I'll bet on that runner being stopped.

CU must play to win they way they always do in this series - suffocate the life out of the game, and make the Rams play big-boy football.  Make it a game of simple arithmetic, rather than calculus.  Don't over-think, just bring better athletes and numbers to bear on lesser opponents.  Last year is a perfect example.  When you're playing a team who lives and breathes to be in this game, getting cute only invites disaster.

The Rams are riding an 8-game losing streak, and CSU coaches leading their first charge against the Black and Gold have never ended up a winner.  Stats don't lie, and those are trends you can bank on.

This is the University of Colorado.  Throwing the goats aside is what we do.

It'll be ugly, but that's OK.  A win is a win, just take it and move on.  There are bigger fish to fry as the season progresses.

CU 24 - CSU 13


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