Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, August 29, 2013

2013 Rocky Mountain Showdown Preview

Welcome to another year of Colorado football!  Aren't you excited?

Actually... well... kind of.  As a masochist, I'm interested to see what fresh hells this program can subject me to, but I'm also genuinely intrigued by the new coaching staff.  To digest this year, BuffNation will be treated to a whole new set of offensive and defensive schemes, a promise of faster play on both sides of the ball, and the growth of the young Buffs into men before our very eyes.  Hell, even if they pull another season-long disaster out of their ass, it should at least be an interesting car wreck this time around.

And so we come to the season's first game - the annual headache with CSU.  This is not a sexy matchup by any means, with both squads coming in off of a year of mostly unwatchable garbage. BuffNation is acutely aware of the final 1-11 turd laid by Jon Embree on his way out the door, but the Rams also suffered through their traditional bevy of losses last season.  While there was a glimmer of hope up north when they hit the tail end of their schedule, the crux of the year was a throw-away up-and-down the Front Range.

You have to be completely invested to watch this game. What was once, a decade ago, a showcase early-season event played to a national audience has been reduced to the cable backwater CBS Sports Network.  An also-ran stage for a game between also-ran programs.
 (It's the 10-yr anniversary of the 'rain game.'  Remember when the RMS was 'must-see?')

In that sense, CU and CSU deserve each other.

--

The 85th edition of the Rocky Mountain Showdown kicks off from Sports Authority Field at Mile High at 4pm MT on Sunday.  Coverage can be found on CBS Sports Network, with Mark Johnson and the radio broadcast on 850 KOA.

You can find my previews from previous iterations of the series here, here, and here.

Click below for the preview...


Good God, this crap again.  Haven't we all had enough?

For whatever reason, I just can't shake this game.  I've written letters, I've protested vehemently, but still it pops up on the schedule.  The ultimate bad penny.

Just like a bad penny, I've never had much use for an Aggie.  I own no cows that need tending, or fields that need plowing.  Beyond that, what use is there for the wearers of green and orange?  I guess for pizza delivery, but I can just as easily carry out.

OK, fine, I'm being a little unfair, and painting with a broad brush.  Not every Ram goes to Ft Fun with the intention of making a career out of sticking their hand up a cow's ass, or sowing seed (or ends up driving for Dominos, for that matter).  I'm sure there are other subjects to pursue up north.  Maybe like 'rangeland ecology.'  That sounds fancy.
... sounds about right...
The point is, I don't care about CSU.  Never have, never will.  It'd be like asking me to care about Ft Lewis College.  I'm sure it serves a useful purpose for those who attend, but it could shutter it's doors tomorrow, and I wouldn't bat an eye.

Much like this series, in fact.

Between 1958 and 1983, the Rams and Buffs forgot to meet on the gridiron - and, you know what?  The universities didn't fall into the earth, the programs survived - and even flourished - apart from each other, and the fans still went to games.  It could be this way again; blissfully divorced from one another, and cognizant of the fact that CU doesn't need little brother to put a football season together.
Bobby Anderson never played the local safety school. Is his career diminished in any way? Fuck. No.
I would even argue that it would be in CSU's best interest to strike out on their own.  Their existence as a football program has been reduced to an endless series of one-game seasons, and that's not productive.  For BuffNation, I knew we had finally 'arrived' as a basketball school when there were more butts-in-seats for CU vs Northern Arizona, than the January game vs UCLA.  The fanbase was no longer preoccupied with who the opponent was, they just wanted to see the Buffs play.  For the Rams, a separation from their Boulder fixation may be just what they need to get the focus back on CSU 'football.'  Maybe then they could draw more than 12,286 for a season finale (as they did last year against New Mexico), and actually justify that 50,000 seat stadium they plan on building.

So let us, Buffaloes and Rams, join together, and announce in one clear voice that we're done with this series.  If the Denver Sports Commission absolutely needs to host more events in front of a half-empty stadium, they can always schedule more lacrosse games.  We can do better.  The community can do better.
"End this series now!"

...

But, of course, that wish is destined to fall on deaf ears.  For whatever reason, Mike Bohn ceded the negotiating table to the Rams, and, with their inferiority complex, they need this game to justify their existence.  I have as much of a chance living to see this series end as I have of living to see a winning lottery ticket.  I'm destined to sit here, watching yearly renditions of this poorly-attended joke of a 'rivalry' until Judgement Day.  The ultimate 'Fuck You' from the Rammies.

Touché, little brother, touché.


Annual bitch-fest about attendance at the RMS - 

Blah, blah, blah... half-empty stadium, no one cares... poor exhibition of the state's sporting culture... if the game must be scheduled, at least put it on campus... blah, blah, blah.  Hell, it doesn't even have a title sponsor this year!

You've heard all this from me before, and I'd rather not waste any more time on the subject. Suffice to say, good seats are still available for Sunday; although, if you pay full price, you're an idiot.
Lot of fans dressed up as blue seats last year.  Weird. From: the Post.
For what it's worth, CSU charges $30 less for seats in a desperate attempt to fill their side with warm bodies, which pretty much sums up their fan base: half as loyal, half as passionate, and half as interested.


Ephemera - 

Hey!  Look!  The Rams finally got a new uniform sponsorship!  How cute.  I don't know what Aggie thought it was a good idea to go with the group responsible for these atrocities, but I hope he was fired and run out of town on a rail.

Snark aside, it's actually a positive item to note, as the Rams have left behind the Russell Athletic dark ages.   I really don't know why head coach Jim McElwain doesn't want to play up the new look - new uniforms are great for concession sales, and recruiting.  While I don't give a flip about all that, poorly designed off-brand uniforms offend the eyes, and make the game hard to watch for fans of both sides.  At least now CSU will look modern and 'professional,' which, in turn, improves the watchability of the RMS as a whole.

Honestly, good for them.


When last we met - 

Unfortunately, last year was one of those years, as the Rams bounced back from an early 14-3 deficit to snag a 22-17 win.

It's always awkward to talk about one of the odd times that CSU manages to pull off a win in this series.  Like finding a chicken egg in a robin's nest, it's more of a question of 'how did that happen,' than anything else. 

Behind a pair of second quarter touchdown passes from QB Jordan Webb, the Buffs looked poised to start 2012 on a high note.  Unfortunately, with little brother listing on the ropes, CU coughed up a pair of costly fumbles on their final two drives of the opening half, stunting two crucial scoring opportunities, and gifting the Rams a momentum turning touchdown in the process.
A strong start couldn't overcome a second-half offensive disaster.  From: the BDC
Once in the second half, the cracks started with those two fumbles began to expand into outright chasms.  While the defense was holding their own against the Rams (surprising, considering their performance over the rest of the season), the offense had completely spit the bit.  Hindered by an injured Webb and an ineffective O-line, the Buffs could only muster 91 yards over the final 30 minutes of play, whiffing on six of seven third down tries, and never once attempting anything that would make the Rams sweat.

Exemplifying the struggles was a key series from late in the third quarter.  A Tommey Morris fumble gave the Buffs the ball on the 15-yard line, then all but assured of re-taking the lead. CU freshman Malcom Creer, however, nearly fumbled on a dive for the endzone in the ensuing series - an act which almost cost the team a 99-yard fumble recovery-for-touchdown, and me my sanity.  While the near-fumble was overturned upon review, the shock of seeing the run-back unnerved the coaching staff, and cowed them into calling for a play-action rollout pass on 4th-and-goal from the inch line.  The pass fell incomplete (of course), and the Buffs never sniffed the endzone again.
Well, at least no one saw our shame.  From: the BDC
While the 22-17 result wouldn't be as ugly as some of the later losses from last season, the defeat was just as disquieting as if it had been by multiple scores.  From body language alone, you could tell the team had no swagger, no confidence.  They were, only 60 minutes into the season, praying for December.

If you're looking for a bright spot, consider that this was the only time all season that the defense held an opponent under 30 points and 300 yards.  The unit played well enough to win, which, I think, says more about CSU than anything else.


The Rams in 2012 - 

2012 NCAA statistics report can be found here.

The Rams sloughed through yet another sub-par season last year, and were the epitome of an also-ran Mountain West squad.  They finished 9th in the league in offense and 5th in defense, easily explaining their disappointing 7th-place finish.  4-8 overall (3-5 in conference) actually seems kind, in retrospect.

It's interesting to note their consistency in losses. In every one, including a 22-7 home loss to FCS power North Dakota St (go Bison!), they lost by at least two scores.  I won't say they quit in games like the Buffs did (Fresno St only beat them 28-7, after all), but you have to wonder how they managed to lose all eight by double-digits.  In most instances, it was because they fell behind quickly, and never found a foothold.  All told, opponents outscored the Rams 131-52 in opening quarters last season.
We're all Bison, so I'll give CU half credit for NDSU's win over the Rams.
Of most interest to BuffNation was their 40-20 loss at San Jose St, then coached by Mike MacIntyre.  The Spartans were able to move the ball with impunity that day, racking up 568 yards of offense, and holding the ball for over 37 minutes. While the Rams did manage to come back within a point after falling behind 14-0, the Spartans responded by outscoring them 26-7 the rest of the way.

As impressive as that performance was, MacIntyre isn't so sure that the Spartan victory will have much bearing on the proceedings in Denver.  "I think (playing them last year) helps," he said recently, "but it helps them also." Fair enough.

Offensively, they were almost as ineffective as their CU counterparts.  100th nationally in total offense (339 yards per), they only scored 21 points per contest, and only converted on 34% of all third down opportunities.  The problem was mostly a result of poor quarterback play, as they had the third worst passing downs offense in the nation.  They could've saved everyone the trouble, and brought the punter out on third-and-long, because their chances of converting were about the same as mine
The 2012 Ram offense was outright offensive.
On defense, things were a little better, but they couldn't get into the opponent's backfield (110th in tackles for loss), and had a hard time making stops (allowed 3rd down conversions nearly 50% of the time). Statistically, the only category where the 2012 Rams would've been considered 'good' is passing defense, where they held opponents to slightly over 203 yards per game (26th nationally).  Unfortunately, when you're giving up an equal number on the ground (202 per, good for 103rd nationally), that success begins to lose meaning.

They simply weren't a good football team last year. There is a reason, after all, that a historically bad 2012 CU squad nearly beat these guys.

A glimmer of hope, however, came from some stronger play over their final five games, starting with a 42-27 win over Hawai'i..  They won three down the stretch, and improved their average scoring deficit by nearly five points per contest.  Much of the turnaround came on the back of their veteran offensive line.  The unit produced a 70-yards per game increase on the ground, and gave up 2.5 fewer sacks per contest over those final five games.

If their veteran roster can carry that end-of-season momentum into this year, they could have a very nice season.  First thing's first, however, they have to improve that offense, and convert on third downs


Star Players - 

The Rams return a ridiculous 19 starters for 2013, including all five of their offensive linemen.  Veteran talent in the trenches is worth its weight in gold in college, and CSU has it in spades with a combined 87 starts spread across the line.  The unit is anchored by 6-4, 300lb center Weston Richburg.  The Texas native has started all 36 games in his career, and is on the preseason all-Mountain West Team after playing the entirety of 2012 without committing a penalty.  This is the one of the areas where the Rams completely outclass the Buffs, and I expect the CU defensive line will struggle against this group all day.
Richburg anchors a veteran, nasty offensive line.
Running behind the experienced hog-mollies are a pair of talented backs who are capable of much more than they showed last season.  Senior Chris Nwoke and sophomore Donnell Alexander combined for 1,157 yards a year ago, but Nwoke, especially, left yards on the table through injuries and turnovers.  Nwoke is an old hand, who has over 2,000 rushing yards in his career, while Alexander came on as a freshmen last season to lead the team with 587 yards and four scores.  Combined with that veteran O-line, the pair should be able to put up at least 1,500 yards this season, if not more.
Nwoke looks to rebound from a disappointing 2012.  From: the Post.
The Rams will need their production, because the passing game is still a big question mark.  After a recent scrimmage, coach McElwain mentioned that he was unsure about who his starting quarterback is, even going so far as to float the possibility that he could play as many as four under center this Sunday.  That's obviously a load of sand-bagging horse shit, but it's still anyone's guess as to who will get the majority of snaps this weekend.  Between junior Garrett Grayson, sophomore Conner Smith, and freshman Nick Stevens, I'm putting my money on Smith, but only because he was at the helm over that five game stretch of solid football towards the end of last season.  Regardless of who 'wins' the job, they'll be focused on hitting their stellar pair of tight ends, senior Crockett Gillmore and junior Kivon Cartwright
Gilmore is better than anything CU has at TE.
What success the Rams enjoyed on pass defense in 2012 was keyed by the stellar play of senior defensive back Shaq Bell.  The 5-11 senior roams all over the field, playing multiple positions, and can really disrupt.  His preferred position in nickel, but I wouldn't be surprised to line up across from Paul Richardson on key downs.
Bell will be all over the field on Sunday.
Senior defensive end Shaquil Barrett and sophomore linebacker Cory James star up front, and combined for 121 tackles and 11 sacks last year.  James earned freshman All-America honors in 2012 for setting a freshman school record with 7.5 sacks.


Coaching - 
 
Coach Jim McElwain got his first taste of life as a D1 head coach last season, but things didn't go nearly as smooth as when he was an assistant with Alabama.  I'm sure it must've come as a shock to him, going from the penthouse to a program that still played second fiddle in the media to the worst CU team since the Fairbanks era.

Despite media attempts to rush to conclusions and anoint him as the second coming on Sonny Lubick, the jury is still out on McElwain.   A 4-8 record in year one is nothing to write home about, but I do credit him for keeping his team together after numerous tough losses early in the season.  While his counterpart in Boulder sat-by as his charges checked-out mentally in late September, McElwain got the Rams to stay focused, and even improve over the second half of the schedule.  Sure, it was against the likes of UNLV and New Mexico, but at least they put wins up on the board.
I'll hand out tentative praise for improving as the season went on.
Going forward, I think he has to continue the progress forged in November, and push the program towards bowl contention.  While that goal is made slightly more difficult with the Hawai'i-fueled 13-game schedule, I think a six or seven win season is possible.  They've got a veteran roster, one now at ease with the coaching staff, and need to capitalize on it this season.  If not... well, then nothing changes, because no one outside of the Rammie conclave will bat an eye at their stumbles/success.

--

I'd be remiss if I didn't note at this point that McElwain, along with buccaneer AD Jack Graham, got into a bit of hot water over the offseason for racially charged responses made when questioned "how the university planned to address the 33% graduation rate of the black athlete at the school (sic)." According to a letter sent to the President of CSU by the Student Athletes Human Rights Project, McElwain said something to the effect that "[I've never seen a solid family structure in a home of a (black) player I recruited].”  The actual quote is disputed, but, suffice to say, the players in attendance did not take kindly to the implied substance.

After some quick backtracking, amends seem to have been made, with the Rams instituting a number of  changes to the way they support their athletes off the field.  That doesn't, by any means, excuse the comment(s), and only by the grace of the anonymity that the CSU program enjoys did McElwain and Graham escape a media beat-down.

Think of it this way, CU was cracked with the racism stick simply by firing a head coach who produced one of the most lifeless seasons in program history.  Had anyone in the department even hinted at sentiments like those posed by McElwain and Graham, regardless of context, the public furor would've forced the shuttering of the entire CU AD.  CSU gets a free pass, and an implied thumbs-up from the local media, because, again, no one cares about them.   


Prediction - 

Mike MacIntyre recently called this a 'huge game,' and he couldn't be more correct. The Buffs need a win in week one purely from a confidence standpoint.  There are some true horrors waiting in the remainder of the schedule, and a loss here could spell 0-12 if they're not careful.  Best to just beat the Rams, and move on.

Of course, coming off their win last season, much of Ft Collins (and Vegas, for that matter) is taking for granted that the Rams can roll the reeling Buffs for a second-consecutive year.  However, CSU hasn't won back-to-back games in this series in over a decade, and only twice since 1934.  Even at CU's lowest, it takes a special performance from the Rams to overcome the basic fundamental that the Buffs bring more talent to the table.

Unfortunately, the honest truth is that I think CSU will win on Sunday.  The veteran Rams scare me at many areas, and I'm just not convinced that the Buffs are out of 'losing mode.' Sure, Paul Richardson adds an entirely different dimension to proceedings - meaning the offense won't be stuck in neutral for an entire half - and maybe it's just residual scarring from 2012, but I'm expecting a loss.

... but that's no fun.  How can I pick my beloved alma mater to lose to the local safety school?

So, for the sake of the 'rivalry,' and the superior attitude a true Buffalo must carry at all times toward little brother, I say that CU will win this weekend!  The defense comes up with a performance that is entirely out of character, Richardson gets loose for two big scores, and the special teams unit comes up with a trio of momentum turning plays.  Regardless of how the rest of the season goes, the Buffs will at least have this one, this perfect day of Colorado football.

Why not?  It could happen...

 CU 37 - CSU 14


GO BUFFS!  BEAT THE RAMS!

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Possibly the biggest piece of garbage I have ever tried to read. Pointing out the supposed ” CSU inferiority complex” a dozen times in one article doesn't exactly make you look as confident as you'd like to think.

RumblinBuff said...

Thanks for reading!

Aaron Jordan said...

The fact that Anonymous pointed it out proves the inferiority complex exists.

Also who names their kid Anonymous?

Snow said...

Guess Anonymous is not proud to be a CSU ram?

Jon said...

I appreciate your actual breakdown of performance last season and expectations for the game this year, it's put together quite nicely. The lead-up to that is long and meandering. Also, I get that as a CU fan you're obligated to disparage CSU a bit, but harping on it doesn't make CU sound superior. In reality, they're both just mediocre/good schools, and they've both got pretty sad football programs as of late.

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