Who has the edge? CSU Edition
LARAMIE — People like to say that the game of football is not played on paper.
They are right — but it’s still fun to look.
Today, we will breakdown the offenses of the Colorado State Rams (4-6, 3-3) and Wyoming Cowboys (6-4, 3-3). The two Border War rivals will meet Friday night at War Memorial Stadium. What’s on the line? Plenty. These two play for the Bronze Boot -- and bragging rights. Colorado State still has bowl hopes with two games remaining in the regular season. Not to mention they have lost to the Cowboys three straight years and seven of the last 10. The Pokes are still attempting to solidify a bowl invite.
This one is always big.
So, who has the edge on offense?
Let’s break it down real quick.
Tyler Vander Waal would like a mulligan after his four turnover performance last Saturday in Logan. The sophomore took chances all day long, too many if you ask his head coach, Craig Bohl. The final nail in the Cowboys coffin came on a Vander Waal pass across his body down the middle of the field into double coverage. That ended in an interception. That ended the game and any slim hopes Wyoming had of competing for a Mountain West title. Vander Waal needs to be better this week. No one knows that more than him. Last season, Vander Waal wore a headset and watched as new starting quarterback Sean Chambers torched the Rams on the ground and through the air in a convincing 34-21 victory at Canvas Stadium. This time it will be Vander Waal under center against the Cowboys biggest rivals. He said Monday that he has put the USU performance in the rear-view mirror. CSU doesn't feature a top-tier secondary, but Vander Waal must clean up what Bohl called "Brett Favre like throws" in this one. He has completed more than 50 percent of his passes and is doing a nice job of spreading the ball around in his first two starts. Aside from the turnovers, Vander Waal has plenty to build on. That starts Friday night with the Bronze Boot on the line.
Like Wyoming, CSU lost its starting quarterback for the season. Also like the Cowboys, the Rams back-up has had his good moments, and bad. The good -- Patrick O'Brien has thrown 10 touchdown passes to go along with 2,297 yards through the air. The bad -- He tossed a 99-yard pick-six last week in a home loss to Air Force with the Rams driving late. He is also a sitting duck in the pocket. He was sacked eight times by the Falcons, fumbling once. O'Brien has been sacked 22 times this season and has minus-38 yards to his credit. He is still very dangerous and throws a nice long ball. The Nebraska transfer has plenty of weapons at his disposal, too. We will get to them in a minute. Bohl said Wyoming's pass rushers will have to get to O'Brien to limit explosive plays. The Rams will look to solidify their line play this week, but guys like Garrett Crall and Solomon Byrd have to make an impact for the Cowboys to be successful Friday night. The Rams feature the 12th-ranked passing offense in the nation, averaging 315 yards per outing. Wyoming's secondary will be very busy in this one.
ADVANTAGE: Colorado State
Could help be on the way? It sure sounds like it. Bohl said Monday that Alphonzo Andrews Jr., a true freshman three-star recruit from St. Louis, has done enough in practice to earn meaningful reps and could be inserted into Friday night's game. Titus Swen could be back, too, but Bohl said don't count on it. The true freshman hasn't played since sustaining an injury in San Diego. No worries, Xazavian Valladay is getting used to this new workload. For the fourth consecutive week the sophomore eclipsed the 100-yard mark. He rushed for 114 yards in Logan last Saturday on 25 carries. Valladay was limited in practice this week and had a brace on his knee at practice Tuesday. Bohl told reporters he should be all good Friday. He now has 869 rushing yards on the season. That's bad news for the visitors Friday night. CSU gives up yards -- in bunches. The Rams are 115th in the nation in that category, allowing 207 yards on the ground per outing. If all goes to plan, Valladay could be looking at his first 1,000-yard season in a Cowboys uniform.
Marvin Kinsey is the Rams leading rusher this season with 703 yards. He was booted from the squad a few weeks ago for breaking team rules. That doesn't mean CSU doesn't have reserves. Marcus McElroy has been impressive out of the Rams backfield, recording 322 yards on just 69 carries. That's an average of 4.7 yards per carry. The big bruiser earns every yard, too. Jaylen Thomas offers a nice change of pace for the Rams, too. He has 163 yards on 45 carries. CSU averages 145 yards per outing on the ground. They will face a Wyoming defense which allows just 98. If Wyoming can eliminate the CSU run game and let its defensive ends and linebackers go to work, the visitors could be in trouble.
WIDE RECEIVERS/ TIGHT ENDS:
This unit is seeing more and more action with Vander Waal under center. Last Saturday in Logan, six receivers hauled in passes, including six for fifth-year senior Josh Harshman. Austin Conway also snagged five for 64 yards in the loss. Raghib Ismail Jr. needs to have a big game against the Rams. He was shutout against the Aggies. He leads the team with just 240 yards receiving on 14 receptions. Bohl said Monday that his offense is not the "big-strike type" joking that he isn't running a "Mike Leach" offense. You don't need to tell us that. The numbers say it all. No, Wyoming is not necessarily a threat to go out and throw the ball 50 times a game, but these receivers have gained confidence since Vander Waal was thrust into the lineup. Ayden Eberhardt, who caught one pass at USU, said this group is getting better each week. If they hope to hoist that boot late Friday night in Laramie, these guys must make plays. Losing tight end Jackson Marcotte doesn't help things.
Colorado State is "Wide receiver U." And the Rams have found their latest weapon on the edge in Warren Jackson. He's 6-feet, 6-inches and catches everything thrown his way. Jackson has amassed 940 receiving yards on 63 catches and has found the end zone six times. Bohl knows Jackson poses plenty of issues for the Pokes secondary Friday night. "Jackson, I think, is maybe the most dynamic receiver in the conference. He's a big, strong guy," Bohl said Monday. Those are all facts. Unfortunately for a Wyoming secondary that gives up 282 yards per game through the air, Jackson isn't the Rams only target. True freshman, Dante Wright, might be the most electric player in the Mountain West. He runs the ball, catches passes and males plays. Wright has 51 catches for 728 yards and four touchdowns. That's not all. Auburn transfer, Nate Craig-Myers (18 catches, 306 yards, 1 touchdown) and tight end Trey McBride (30 catches, 381 yards, 3 touchdowns) will also have to be accounted for. This group is scary good. Wyoming secondary, at times, has been the opposite of that. This will be a big-time challenge for Tyler Hall, Azizi Hearn and crew.
ADVANTAGE: Colorado State
Wyoming saw the return of Zach Watts and Alonzo Velazquez Saturday afternoon in Utah. Those two are in the starting lineup Friday. That is a big boost to a unit that has been decimated by injuries this season, including the loss of arguably their best player, guard Eric Abojei. Despite the injuries and youth across the front five, the Cowboys offensive line has been one of the best in the nation, opening holes for Valladay and Co. Wyoming boasts the 20th-ranked rushing attack in the country, averaging 219.6 yards per outing. That's nearly five yards per carry. That also spells trouble for the Rams, who have struggled to tackle anyone this season. CSU switches between a 3-and 4-man front. Wyoming has seen plenty of both. If these guys get running down hill, it could be a long night for the guys from Fort Collins.
You might have read up above -- CSU's offensive line gave up eight sacks in last week's loss to Air Force. The Falcons feature a smaller, quick defensive line. So do the Cowboys. The Rams return two starters from last season' squad in left guard Jeff Taylor and right guard Barry Wesley. As a unit, these guys have given up 26 sacks. That's 103rd in the country. For comparison purposes, Wyoming has allowed just 13. O'Brien doesn't help his line much with his inability to get out of the pocket, but these guys were flat burned in the loss to the Falcons. This will be an area the Cowboys must exploit with the threat of the Rams passing attack. Wyoming has 30 sacks this season, led by Byrd's 6.5 and Crall with 4.5.